Saturday, May 29, 2010

WSJ Bemoans Billy Budd Minus Sexual Tension

It looks like the American press wasn't quite as forgiving as the British press when it came to Michael Grandage's Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. Both the director and the Billy Budd - Jacques Ibrailo - talked openly before opening night about their desire to focus more on Billy's goodness than the sexual tension in the libretto. Howls erupted from some within the opera community, but the British press still gave the production polite if not favorable reviews. However, Paul Levy in the Wall Street Journal was pretty forthright in his criticism.

Mr. Grandage seems to have eliminated the homosexual theme from the piece. As Billy, who is so good-looking that he is nicknamed "Beauty," Jacques Imbrailo radiates goodness and innocence. Most productions rely on the dramatic tension created by the feelings both Captain Vere and the Master-at-Arms, Claggart, have for the handsome able seaman, Billy, who has been press-ganged from his passing merchant ship, Rights o' Man. Neither John Mark Ainsley's Vere nor Phillip Ens's Claggart seems to have any sexual desire for Billy. Though it feels deliberate, this could, of course, simply be a failing in their performances.

In any case, it exposes a real weakness in the work's first half, in which Billy, unjustly accused by Claggart of inciting mutiny, stammeringly fails to defend himself, and in frustration strikes him dead with a single blow. The only witness is the unfailingly just Captain Vere. As he wrote to literary critic Lionel Trilling, Forster was more interested in Vere's lapse from goodness than in Claggart's "natural depravity." The novelist thought he'd written Claggart's monologue along the lines of Iago's in Verdi's "Otello," but in the absence of the sexual chemistry that usually conceals the poverty of the text, Claggart's Act I aria is just a statement of an inexplicable hatred for Billy. Forster's words don't even support a Coleridgean analysis of Iago and Claggart's characters as pure, unmotivated evil.

Read the entire review HERE.

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  1. Bravo to Paul Levy for saying what many of us have been thinking. Michael Grandage did nothing but cater to the prim, overly-proper and pompous patrons that frequent Glyndebourne. Clearly, he and the management were afraid of upsetting their "ruling class" sensibilities by including the homoerotic subtext in both the book and the libretto. Furthermore, they cast the sexless choir boy Jacques Imbrailo in the lead when clearly his voice was too small for the role. (Actually, Duncan Rock who you also feature would have been a far more intriguing choice). Billy Budd needs neither the overt sexuality of the Frankfurt production or the "for schoolgirls only" staging of Glyndebourne. The opera is a masterpiece as conceived and written and should be staged as such!

  2. Heck, even the old, b&w movie had some *subtext*. One had just to look into Langdon's eyes! :D

    Frankfurt is overly sexy? I only saw ugly unflattering costumes in the parts on youtube... but I'm getting it, do i'll have to see. Mattei is not hot at all...