In Britain’s naval heyday, a warship was a floating fragment of the empire — frail, distant, and solitary, yet tethered to the homeland by a thread of morals and laws. In this little world, full of sealed-in love and loathing, and populated solely by men, Benjamin Britten found the ideal vessel for an opera. And in Billy Budd, he found the ideal music for every moment of the seaman’s day. The rhythmic scraping of the deck, the heaving of ropes, the loading of guns, the ocean swells and bleak stillness of a windless day — it’s as if Britten had cast a spell on the physical world and turned it into a topography of sound.
It’s difficult to describe the roundness of a specific sphere; it’s nearly as stymying to tease apart the seamless intensity of Michael Grandage’s Glyndebourne production, which is now in the midst of a searing run at BAM. Christopher Oram’s sets contain the action within a wooden O: The deck curves and the walls bow, intensifying the claustrophobia on the open seas. But it’s the music, which Mark Elder conducts with loving detail and precise power, that makes the HMS Indomitable such a thunderous box. Except for a quartet of young boys who sprinkle the score with high notes, this is a low-register opera, anchored by a sailor’s chorus, martial timpani, and a tidal rumble of double basses. The London Philharmonic and Glyndebourne Opera Chorus delivered them all with subtlety and depth.
The opera’s named for the wrong character. Jacques Imbrailo sings the title role with tenderness and unruly energy. The sailor Billy is the male ingénu (the masculine version of that word exists in French, even if it’s unaccountably missing in English) — eager, beautiful, popular, and doomed. A stutterer, he can’t quite master his tongue or his fist, and the frustration leads him to lash out. Britten haloes this poor inarticulate boy in eloquent music, ensuring that we love him as his shipmates do.
But the moral core of the opera is Mark Padmore’s Captain, who intones his full name, Edward Fairfax Vere, in a self-lacerating chant. Padmore is an artist of immense expressive powers, the rare tenor who can not only unspool line after lovely sounding line, but also insinuate himself into the folds of a mature and complex character. Vere is a decent man forced to make a ruthless decision he neither shirks nor condones. The men recoil and rise up; the ship shakes with the threat of its own destruction. Padmore makes us understand — or rather, feel — how a captain could quell his own desperation and his sailors’ mutiny — not with force of arms, but by force of character. Billy Budd should by rights be Captain Vere.
Billy Budd is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through February 13.