Mutiny at the Mikhailovsky

Mutiny at the Mikhailovsky

The theater prepares to stage ‘Billy Budd,’ Benjamin Britten’s opera about male relationships at sea.

Published: January 23, 2013 (Issue # 1743)

Michael Poehn / Wiener Staatsoper

‘Billy Budd,’ a tale of bullying with tragic consequences, is set on board a ship and features an all-male cast.

Benjamin Britten’s 1961 opera “Billy Budd” will see its Russia premiere on Jan. 24, 25 and 26 on the stage of the Mikhailovsky Theater. The theater is staging the Vienna State Opera’s production from 2001, directed by the eminent German theater director Willy Decker.

As the world marks the British composer’s centenary in 2013, Decker is visiting Russia for the first time and is personally recreating his version of the opera for the Mikhailovsky.

“I have worked with wonderful Russian singers, but I have never staged anything in Russia,” Decker was quoted by the theater’s press service as saying.

“The fact that Britten’s opera has never been performed here either adds to the responsibility,” he said.

The libretto is based on Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd,” about a young sailor with a stammer being bullied aboard a ship in 1797. The libretto was written at Britten’s request by the novelist E. M. Forster, an expert on Melville’s work, who wrote it together with Eric Crozier. The action takes place on board the ship, and there is not one female character.

The title role will be sung by Andrei Bondarenko, while German bass-baritone Johannes von Duisburg and British bass Graeme Broadbent will alternate in the role of John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms who sets out to make trouble for Billy.

Von Duisburg first played Claggart in Decker’s production seven years ago.

“The clash between Billy Budd and Claggart is an example of the eternal struggle between good and evil,” said the bass-baritone.

“Claggart is a man devoid of feelings; his only enjoyment comes from his ability to manipulate the crew of HMS Indomitable. He is a very slippery character. Listen to the music: Everything around my character moves quickly — well-coordinated work is underway — but Claggart’s arrival is accompanied by the appearance of legato, glissando… This is a man who can do anything he wants, but always formally within the law, like some politicians.

“Then comes the entrance of Billy Budd, whose sincerity and purity captivates the whole crew, Claggart included. The master-at-arms encounters something unfamiliar — emotion, affection — and because of this, he begins to hate Billy. It is the kind of love-hate relationship that leads to disaster,” said von Duisburg.

His counterpart Broadbent sees the HMS Indomitable as a model of society in miniature. “All the classes are represented, from the aristocracy in the person of Captain Vere to virtual criminals, since anyone could be conscripted as a sailor,” he said.

“The confrontation between Billy Budd and Claggart is actually a story of the struggle between good and evil, only in this case everyone turns out to be the loser. As a result, the laws by which society lives are victorious over humanity: After Billy accidentally kills Claggart, the captain has to decide whether or not he should be executed. In human terms, he understands Billy and knows he is innocent, but according to the law, the sailor deserves death. The law turns out to be more important than morals.

Bondarenko says he dreamed of singing the role of Billy Budd.

“When Claggart notices how much everyone loves Billy, he becomes angry because he himself will never be like Billy, and at the same time he’s afraid that he likes Billy himself,” he said.

“This is conveyed wonderfully in Britten’s music: In the score the characters’ themes are very clear and the details communicate the drama of their relationships. There are amazing ensembles in which you sense the scale of the ocean, waves and hurricanes. When I first heard this opera, I immediately imagined everything as a complete whole — the atmosphere on that specific ship. I think that out of all of Britten’s operas Billy Budd is the most musically accessible to an audience.”

Mikhail Tatarnikov, musical director at the Mikhailovsky Theater, described Britten as one of two exceptional figures in 20th-century music, alongside Czech composer Leo Janácek.

“The most powerful influence [Britten] experienced was the influence of life itself,” said Tatarnikov. “He suffered from a very strong, internal anguish: Basically, his entire life was a challenge to society. And although that’s not very good for a normal person, it’s excellent for creativity, for art,” he said.

“Billy Budd” will be shown at 7 p.m. on Jan. 24, 25 and 26 at the Mikhailovsky Theater, 1 Ploshchad Iskusstv. Tel. 595 4305.

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