In a word: wow.
Somehow, I don't quite know how, I just wrote two reviews (well, one and a half) of this production for publication elsewhere. You would think, then, that I would have plenty to say about it. Once I get started, then I suppose I shall. As it is, I feel a little bit lost for words. Straight criticism is what it is, it has its conventions, and if all else fails, you can just hold tight to those conventions, frame the review accordingly and resist just crossing it all out and saying: actually, criticism is irrelevant here. I meant everything I wrote, and certainly, this Billy deserves to praised in every possible quarter. But still, flabbergasted silence remains much closer to my real response than any of the words I've written, and any I'll write here now. Too bad, I guess. Flabbergasted silence isn't what blogging is for, and if I don't mention Billy at all, then you might think I didn't like it, and that would be a far greater injustice than any my inelegant prose can commit.
The problem is what, or whom, to rave about first. At least my affection for Benjamin Britten is already well known. He is one of those composers (with R. Strauss and Poulenc) the mere thought of whom makes me happy, always at the top of my list when I consider a dream opera season, and I would gladly sport an I ♥ Britten t-shirt, were such a garment to be had. That he should have E.M. Forster as his librettist only heightens my delight. I am relatively new to Billy Budd but my response to Britten is a foregone conclusion anyway; especially now that I've heard it in the flesh — my first live Britten opera.
In the midst of all these accusations against Opera Australia and against Hickox personally, these claims that artistic standards are slipping and we deserve better than what we're currently being presented with, the company has no better argument in its favour than a show like this. Richard Hickox conducting a Britten opera starring Philip Langridge and Teddy Tahu Rhodes — that's about as good as it gets. That's a line-up that any opera house, of any standing, would be proud to present. Although, as the man behind me smartly, and quite correctly, pointed out to his seat mate, you can't deny that women over 40 are definitely under-represented in this opera.
Langridge puts the Star in Starry Vere. This I only half expected. I'd been told he was wonderful, but the only other time I've seen him in action is on the DVD of Trevor Nunn's Glyndebourne Idomeneo, in which everyone (possibly intentionally) looks odd and wooden, not helped by costumes from the House of Life of Brian. Now I realise he's one of those — one of those singers who also just happens to be a preposterously gifted actor. Captivating doesn't come close to describing it. He just was Vere. All the technical stuff — the perfect diction, the impeccable phrasing, the voice that you'd never think belonged to a 69-year-old — is sort of incidental. He manages to do that thing that people like Natalie, and Maria before her, aspire to, to allow you to forget that he is singing. Or something like it.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes' Billy is hardly less impressive. I can't help thinking that when Melville, and Crozier and Forster after him, wrote of Billy's beauty, it was Teddy they were seeing. And I don't just mean all the obvious beauty he possesses, though lord knows there's plenty of it. But for all his height and muscles, he makes Billy seems sweet and boyish too, small and self effacing even while he towers over everyone in sight. He gives Billy a beautiful soul. And even when his bearing on stage isn't entirely convincing — I've said before that he reminds me of Tigger, with his constant movement and tendency to bounce — his commitment is still palpable. Fine, he looks the part, but what makes it work is that his heart, too, is in this completely. He has some extraordinary moments, far surpassing anything he did in Streetcar. In terms of sheer virtuosity, I think singing quickfire patter, not a hair or note out of place, while jumping up a set of steps is pretty hard to beat. All the ladder work is impressive too. None of it comes close, though, to his singing of Billy's final monologue. I was transfixed, he was incredible, and I have never heard him sing so beautifully before. Those who criticise him for sameishness, or for bellowing (and I have occasionally been among them) would be silenced by this: it was full of light and shade, and totally devastating.
John Wegner is a Claggart straight from the pits of hell. The make-up helps: everyone else is a normal hue, but Claggart's and Squeak's faces are an awful, ghostly white, and their eyes reddened. Wegner enters, looking like death not even warmed up, and radiates evil from every pore. Then he sings and the audience collectively shudders. It's a voice of elegant, caressing, subtle but bloodcurdling malice. He's repellent, but you cannot look away, and he sings so well you want to listen. Little wonder he bends these men to his will.
And then there are the rest. Almost the entire male ensemble, or so it seems. I can't mention them all. But my favourites included Andrew Collis as a maladroit Mr Flint, Conal Coad as Dansker (nice to see him being a bit more low key and not so buffo), and a brave and poignant performance by Andrew Goodwin as the Novice. Luke Gabbedy is pretty fantastic as Donald, too — especially in the "We're off to Samoa" shanty sequence, where he shows off some pretty nifty dance moves. Also, Opera Australia needs to commission a Napoleon and Josephine opera, because when you put him in breeches and a bicorne hat, Warwick Fyfe is the spitting image. Seriously, it's spooky.
Neil Armfield's production is, not surprisingly, brilliant. It makes sense, it's simple and powerful and desperately moving; it's as dark and ambiguous as Billy Budd should be but also celebrates all its humour and beauty. No particularly recognisable bits of ship, just a big platform that rises, falls, tilts and rotates to represent everywhere, and a couple of scaffolded staircases. More than enough. It's sort of halfway between a representation of a real ship and a representation of ship as psychological metaphor. It works exceedingly well. As do the costumes and the lighting and every little thing. Especially the lighting. Billy's hanging is a stroke of genius.
As usual, I thought I had nothing to say and it turns out I had plenty. So much the better. This show is worth it. I'll definitely see it again. And I know you don't need telling, but if you're in Sydney, you really, really need to see this.