Concerts & Opera

Britten's important stage work in Genoa



It is natural that Britten’s Billy Budd should appeal to audiences of a great sea port like Genoa and the production seen on April 19th was actually the second to be staged at the Teatro Carlo Felice in the new millennium. The set designed by Tiziano Santi consisted essentially of two parallel platforms that were raised and lowered continually: sometimes to suggest different decks on the H.M.S. Indomitable; sometimes to convey the rolling motion of the sea. Sails were visible high up above the platforms, but rope-pulling and other activities of the sailors were mimed rather than acted out realistically.
Director Davide Livermore chose to update the action to what looked like the second half of the 20th century, thus undermining somewhat the credibility of a similarly constructed warship, where sailors are punished with the whip and anti-French sentiment is unanimous. It was also disconcerting to see a scruffily-dressed Captain Vere offer wine to his fellow officers in pewter tankards rather than in the glasses specifically referred to in Forster and Crozier’s libretto. This sort of directorial carelessness (confirmed by the presentation of the elderly Dansker—tellingly sung by John Paul Huckle—as a young man) blurred the audience’s perception of a character who was otherwise strongly portrayed by the tenor Alan Oke, who acted with dignity and projected the words with real musical feeling.

Graeme Broadbent’s Claggart proved somewhat less convincing: although not without experience in the role, he appeared too patently evil a character in both appearance and vocal inflection for anyone on board to be deceived by his hypocrisy. Britten surely wanted us to feel the inner torment and emotional repression that lies behind the cruelty, but this didn’t seem to fit in with Livermore’s somewhat schematic vision of the work. The other main characters however were brought properly into focus, with the Canadian baritone Phillip Addis proving a Billy of some charm and inspiration, and Christopher Robertson lending appreciable solidity to Redburn.


The director proved skillful on the whole in highlighting the homoerotic tension underpinning some relationships and also caught rather well the moods of collective merriment and rebellion, with the combined male choruses of the Teatro Carlo Felice and Lisbon’s Teatro São Carlos singing powerfully in accented English. The secondary characters too, played mainly by Italians, were stronger in voice than in diction.


There was much applause for the young conductor Andrea Battistoni at the end of the afternoon performance and there is no doubting his ability to galvanize the orchestra. He still has a lot to learn however as an accompanist of singers (orchestral climaxes were consistently over-weighted) and revealed only an approximate understanding of Britten’s very specific sound world.

Stephen Hastings, Genoa

Photos: Marcello Orselli



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