It has been nine years since Michael Grandage’s matserful production of this opera premiered at Glyndebourne. Sitting in the auditorium you could quite nearly smell the sea. Its depiction of life on a frigate was viceral and absorbing. The set was hugely impressive, the beautifully constructed belly of the ship giving vent to the chlostrophobia and frustrations inherent in the drama and in the music. It may have been considered somewhat conservative by modern standards but the text and the music and the production were perfectly wedded together. In contrast, Deborah Warner’s current production for The Royal Opera House is a mess of conflicting parts and gets lost somewhere in the large expanse of space on The Royal Opera House’s stage and the blurring of the period setting.
The set has the feel of a stage decorated in the theme of a ship. The ship’s wooden boards are there and there are plenty of ropes hanging aimlessly and listlessly down the height of the stage. The chorus, wonderful and in full voice, swarms in and out. There are men dressed like security guards who bare batons threateningly but ultimately pointlessly. The chorus scrub the decks; one knows not to what end. Then children appear to taunt the deck scrubbers; but it is not clear who these children are. In this aimless process we lose all sense of the antagonism between the officers and the crew which partly motivates the events that follow. There is a persistent problem with distracting over movement. The production doesn’t change gear at any point and continues in the same vein; people move sacks, they move boxes, they run around and pull ropes but none of these actions achieve any obvious results.
There is some attempt made to control the space with the use of lighting, but it only has limited success. Since the set covers the whole stage, it is very difficult to reduce it and build confined spaces and it gives little sense that here is a community of men drifting at sea in isolation from the world and a state of intimacy that leads to powerful emotions and an extreme need for order and the tyrannical execution of authority.
Just as in Grandage’s 2010 production, Jacques Imbralio takes up the title role, and it is a role he has now worked well into his repertoire. Nearly a decade on he still plays the role of the bright and innocent youth convincingly and sings the part superbly well. He seems to have the particular skill of playing the innocent without appearing too much the fool. Toby Spence plays Vere more as the contemplative reader of Plutarch than the authoritarian captain of a ship . His voice might have a little less sheen than it once did but he delivers with wonderful nuance in his role. Brindley Sherratt brings genuine darkness to the role of John Claggart and completes an excellent trio of leading singers. They are excellently supported by David Soar, Thomas Oliemans and Peter Kellner as the three officers and the remaining cast.
From the pit Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House and transports us into the chilling depths of Britten’s magnificently dark opera.