Blow … blow … blow her away … ” The massed chorus unleashes a unison cry, the light intensifies, a massive flying roof piece arrives in position and the orchestra climaxes. No, not climaxes, explodes. Always a key moment in any staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” it defines Michael Grandage’s magnificently controlled, shattering production. His fusing of music and drama is even more impressive considering that this is Grandage’s operatic debut.
Unfashionably, the production is set not in a neutral or allegorical space but in period, aboard ship. Almost.
There are realistic nautical elements to the massive set — ropes, hammocks, canons et al — but the opera is presented inside out. Eschewing mastheads and sails, set designer Christopher Oram and Grandage claustrophobically encase the action inside the wooden bow of the ship. Not only does that focus the drama, the curved, inward-looking space is suggestive of the mind’s eye of Captain Vere (John Mark Ainsley), who recounts the piece in flashback.
Released from the dictates of dutiful naturalism, the production steers a path between clearly recognizable behavior and stylization. The libretto is not short on either Christianity or homoerotics but the production achieves visceral power by allowing the contrasting elements to be held in tense balance.
Detailed acting is present throughout — the scary outbreak of the first act fight amid the crew is unusually convincing — but Grandage also clearly relishes building the big picture. The misbegotten attack on the French ship at the top of the second act sees 73 performers ranged all over the three-tiered set topped off by the glimpse of a “Les Miz”-style flag waving confidently in the mist.
Conversely, he can produce shivers on a virtually bare stage. At the close of the first act, blithe Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) has just been warned by anxious Dansker (Jeremy White) about the predatory Claggart (glowering, dark-toned Phillip Ens). In the final bars, as the two men leave, the set flies out to reveal Claggart eavesdropping.
Ideally young, lean Imbrailio is cunningly seen in contrast with craggier-looking performers. But the gleamingly fast vibrato of his bright baritone sound alone gives Billy his essential innocence. As a result, he’s all the more dramatically engaging because he doesn’t have to work at underlining the sense of goodness upon which the piece pivots.
The moral weight, however, rests with Vere, who yearns for absolution for having sacrificed Billy. Without ever sacrificing the quality of his beautifully unforced tenor voice, Ainsley brings genuine anguish to Vere’s dilemma. His performance is driven by clarity of thought and understatement. Those qualities are nicely shared by Ben Johnson as the wretched Novice who, flogged and distressed, becomes Claggart’s unwilling spy.
Mark Elder’s command of the score is exemplary, from the extreme eerie pianissimo of the opening strings to his shaping and placing of the voices within the orchestral texture. His grip on the stage action equals Grandage’s dramatic elucidation of the score.
In addition to theater commitments, Grandage is ready to helm “Madame Butterfly” at Houston Grand Opera in October and “Don Giovanni” at the Met in 2012. Further opera offers are now a certainty.