Britten but not in Britain

Britten – Billy Budd. Captain Vere – Neil Shicoff, Billy Budd – Adrian Eröd, Claggart – Peter Rose, Redburn – Markus Eiche, Flint – Wolfgang Bankl, Ratcliffe – Clemens Unterreiner, Red Whiskers – Peter Jelosits, Donald – Eijiro Kai, Dansker – Alfred Šramek, Novice – Benjamin Bruns, Squeak – Norbert Ernst, Bosun – Janusz Monarcha, 1st Mate – Tae Joong Yang, 2nd Mate – Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Maintop – Wolfram Igor Derntl, Novice’s Friend – Carlos Osuna, Arthur Jones – Michael Wilder. Chor, Zusatzchor, Bühnenorchester und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Graeme Jenkins. Stage Director – Willy Decker. Staatsoper, Vienna – Saturday, February 5th, 2011.

One might ask why go see an English opera in English in Vienna. The reality is that Britten is now as firmly considered a repertoire composer as Strauss or Puccini. It was particularly satisfying to see the Viennese audience give a 15-minute ovation to a performance that was sung in impeccable English, superbly conducted and outstandingly played. In fact, it was a superb evening at the theatre.

It was a real privilege for me to attend a performance at the Vienna Staatsoper. This is truly one of the greatest houses in the world and the sense of history there is quite something. One gets a real sense of a true performing and opera going tradition at that house that I haven’t really felt anywhere else. I appreciate that the Staatsoper has a reputation for putting on shows on minimal rehearsal and of occasionally suspect musical distinction. But I am equally aware of the fact that it can be, on a good night, the best house in the world. I felt that tonight, was one of those nights.

The musical preparation was second to none. The orchestra played superbly and felt really inside the score. Thomas Lang’s chorus was simply outstanding. Every single member of the cast felt fully inside their roles. I was astonished by the clarity of the diction of the cast – the vast majority of whom were not native speakers. Indeed, it was vastly superior to the diction that I heard in the last couple of productions I heard at ENO. Willy Decker’s production was somewhat spare. Props were minimal although he did get a sense of the symbolic that is prevalent in Melville’s novella. What I felt underplayed was the homoerotic nature of the story – I feel that more could have been made of that.

An apology was made at the start of the evening for Neil Shicoff who was apparently suffering from a cough. He gave his all into the role and held nothing back. I don’t feel that it sat comfortably in his voice and the truth is that it was somewhat effortful but his commitment and experience carried him through the evening. Adrian Eröd’s Billy was outstanding. It was a very physical performance but vocally spot on. Perhaps he was slightly too knowing for the part but the start of Act 4 was truly moving. Peter Rose’s Claggart was the epitome of evil and really managed to encapsulate that character’s motivations. The rest of the very large cast was excellent – again, looking back over the cast list I am astonished that so few of them were native English speakers, the diction was superb.

The only flaw with the evening was the overenthusiastic prompter who was far too audible.

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One response to “Britten but not in Britain

  1. I’ve seen it too, and found it wonderful. I feel it was Peter Rose’s night – he’s in a superb form and his voice is gorgeous, not to mention his menacing presence and grabbing a complicated character so well. I clearly felt the homoerotic longing in his case, and that he was not simply a villain but also a tragic character.

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