Surprise! For once a Wiener Staatsoper production that is more rather than less than the sum of its parts. The “musikalische Neuinstudierung” of this Billy Budd has gone a long way, and the ensemble and chorus of the Staatsoper get to shine. That means, do your best to ignore most of the principals. The production isn’t going to do much to get your attention either. But it’s pretty good, all told.
Britten, Billy Budd. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/9/2011. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Graeme Jenkins with Neil Shicoff (Vere), Adrian Eröd (Billy), Peter Rose (John Claggart), lots more.
Willy Decker’s austere, elegant production is from 1996 but is only in its 26th performance. (You probably know Decker from his famous “red couch Traviata,” seen recently at the Met and earlier at the Salzburg Festival.) Nevertheless, it seems like a shell. Contra the protests of my standing room neighbor, there is nothing radical about it. The costumes are traditional period, though Billy wears pure white while everyone else wears marine blues. Whatever could that mean? The sets are more abstract. The outer deck shows a ship whose prow faces upstage (rather like Act I of Dieter Dorn’s Met Tristan). Onstage ship settings are always challenging, because if you want to be realistic those things are cramped, but Decker and set designed Wolfgang Gussmann leave the nautical allusions to the costumes and the one outer set, keeping the other sets cavernous and minimal.
Unfortunately, the direction consists largely of transitions between pretty stage pictures stripped of their motivation. Choruses move as masses, but they don’t really communicate anything at this point. Some bits of remaining Personenregie are a little over-the-top, such as Claggart crawling around the stage. One interesting element is the connection of Billy’s stammer to his bursts of violence, as his stammer is accompanied by spasms. I don’t doubt that this production worked very well when Decker was on hand supervising it all and making sure the characterizations came through, but today it doesn’t seem to have much to say about the piece. It’s beautiful, but empty. It’s neutral, if you want to be more positive about it.
(Note: The pictures in this post show the cast I saw with the exception of the one at the very top.)
Adrian Eröd sang Billy quite well, his dry, clear baritone a good fit for Britten and his last scene powerful. But he suffered from a charisma deficit, seems too knowing and wise at key points, and in a role that makes unusual demands of physical presence he is not going to land on the Barihunks blog anytime soon (he seems a bit of a lightweight). (The Barihunks blog: comprised mostly of potential or current Billys.)
Neil Shicoff was announced as indisposed in a notice that mixed an unnecessary quantity of medical detail with a few too many entreaties that he was singing anyways out of the goodness of his heart for his adoring public. He is very popular here, but come on. I don’t know to what extent this indisposition motivated him to sing Captain Vere like he was Dick Johnson, but it’s not to my taste. It was loud, loud, and louder, and while convincingly tortured he did not seem the type to have ever picked up a book. Introspection and delicacy were nowhere to be found. Verismo Vere worked in Act 2, and his wobbles calmed down for some quite impressive singing, but he had been so tortured all evening that it didn’t feel like a high point. The overstatement was both vocal and acting, so it could not have been entirely due to illness.
Peter Rose was the most idiomatic of the leads as an imposing, loud Claggart, and was effectively acted if broadly-drawn. Some of the staging given to him in Act 1 did not seem to fit naturally, but his interactions with the rest of the cast were compellingly creepy.
The real winners in this production were the ensemble and chorus, seemingly involving every 2nd Guard, Nazarene, and Servant I’ve seen at the Staatsoper all season. I don’t know this opera well so I can’t pick out too many people individually, but the overall level was impressive, and the way they all sang together more so. I would like to highlight Alfred Sramek as Dansker (as usual in a role requiring more avuncularity than voice) Markus Eiche as Mr. Redburn, Clemens Unterreiner as Lieutenant Ratcliffe (I think it was him) and Norbert Ernst as Squeak. English was a little off in some places (the Cabin Boy’s German accent was kind of hilarious), but mostly comprehensible. The chorus in particular showed wonderful ensemble and expression.
Much of the credit for the above ensemble also belongs to conductor Graeme Jenkins. The orchestra was also a little less than idiomatic, with a lustrous Old World sound sometimes lacking in leanness and tension. But for what it was it was gorgeous, the clarity of texture was remarkable, and balances and tempos spot on (with a few inevitable exceptions, this is very exposed music). It had, on the whole, a reflective, almost meditative quality–exactly what I thought was missing from Shicoff’s Vere. It was a shame that the set movers had to be so noisy during those heartbreaking chords near the end. You know the ones I mean.
Despite the issues, this is well worth seeing, and a powerful evening. Would that more Staatsoper shows came together so well! Plenty have better raw ingredients than this one and yet inferior results.
(One more comment from my offended elderly British neighbor in standing room. He was mansplaining the opera to me before the show, and carefully warned me that there were no female roles. In simple sincerity, he asked, “Do you like men?” I replied, as deadly serious as I could possibly be without giggling, “Yes. I like men.” Because I’m actually 13 years old. Luckily this flew right over his head. Was tempted to add, “And I don’t mind that this opera is gay gay gay gay.”)
There are two performances remaining: 13 and 17 February.
Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.