It's long been established that standing ovations are so prevalent as to be meaningless. The consensus is that ticket buyers paying so much for a seat rise at curtain calls in order to convince themselves they've just gotten their money's worth.
There are occasions, however, when standing O's are indisputably meaningful, and Michael Grandage's Billy Budd production for Glyndebourne Festival Opera and now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is one of these exalted affairs. If you consider yourself a fan of opera at its zenith, reshuffle whatever plans you have for the final two performances (February 11 and 13) and get there.
Forget, if you can, the pedestrian Don Giovanni that the normally terrific Grandage erected at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2011 (under what exigencies we'll never know). He's in full command of Benjamin Britten's work -- adapted by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier from Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Foretopman -- about the guilt-ridden commander of the good ship Indomitable, Captain Vere (Mark Padmore).
Also at the top of his form is set and costume designer Christopher Oram, who creates a skeletal ship absolutely in keeping with the haunted memory play on shimmering view. Paule Constable matches Oram's environment with lighting that manages to suggest enveloping darkness even when it brightens.
But it's Britten's muscular, often-heavy-on-the-military-brass score, conducted with unceasing muscularity by Mark Elder (leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra), that serves as the foundation for this fully realized interpretation of the all-male opus. The composer grips the audience and doesn't let up throughout the three-hour opera. He's particularly lapel-grabbing with Captain Vere's ruminative prologue followed by the "Heave, oh heave away, heave" chorus and then for the entire second half.
The forcible second-act unfolding of the ultimately thwarted attack on the French navy is quickly superseded by the jealous (evil incarnate) Claggart (Brindley Sherratt) accusing innocent Billy Budd (Jacques Imbrailo) of traitorously fomenting mutiny among his fellow shipmates. Then there are the unfortunate consequences, especially as they affect Captain Vere. Britten's writing is of such sustained power that it almost guarantees the reception Grandage elicits. Though he provides few arias along his compelling way, the ones with which Vere begins and ends the opera and the penultimate sequence during which Billy confronts his imminent hanging and comes to terms with it reach heights comparable to anything found in opera annals.
Needless to say, these sequences wouldn't be as wrenching if they weren't sung and acted exceedingly well. Appearing at curtain-up from a mist foreshadowing a later literal and figurative mist, Padmore establishes Vere as a good man besieged by a troubled past. He takes care that Vere's thoughts and deeds remain at the same level of painfully lucid self-doubt. Is it a stretch to say that Vere is an anagram of "ever," and it's a sly reference to the curse of something lasting forever under which the man has lived since the fateful 1797 event.
Playing an unadulterated innocent could be a challenge, but Imbrailo achieves it not be being generically wide-eyed and sweet. He plays it -- and sings it, of course -- as everyone's kind-hearted, smile-at-the-ready friend. His mood and demeanor shift when he understands what's suddenly in store. It's at that point with the spotlight relentlessly on him that his characterization deepens immeasurably. When in his agitated state he blesses Vere, he's enormously touching.
Every member of the Glyndebourne chorus and each young lad serving as a monkey (they're the small gunpowder brigade) is fine, whether singing or not. It must be said, though, that those raising voices in more individual support distinguish themselves without exception. Sheratt's Claggart is so strong he seemed to provoke a few amusing hisses at the roof-rattling curtain call. As Billy's older shipboard pal Dansker, Jeremy White is consistently effective. As the flogged novice, Peter Gijsbertsen is moving, and his blood-soaked back doesn't harm the, uh, wounding effect. Stephen Gadd, Darren Jeffery -- well, they're all top-notch.
With Britten's centennial just ended, there is something pressing to say for Billy Budd as well as for his Peter Grimes. It's not that during intermission at the Howard Gilman Opera House, people all around were comparing the two works -- with Peter Grimes coming up as preferable for most overheard commentators.
What's important to point out is that in each opera Britten and his collaborators take on significant issues. With Peter Grimes, society's often-misguided destructive attitude towards the individual is the focus. Britten's anger is undeniable as expressed through the music -- with Grimes as torturously compromised as Vere is in Billy Budd. Added to the Billy Budd emotional upheaval is the palpable anguish of a man who has tried to live a moral life but can't stop worrying over a mistake once made that's impossible to reverse.
As Vere goes over the nagging Budd incident, he continually refers to "the infinite sea." He's reflecting, it should be needless to say, on the oceans that the Indomitable navigates, but the "infinite sea" is also a reference to Vere's endless uncertainty. Britten captures that mindset with his score. Grandage, Elder, orchestra and singers bring it thrillingly to the stage.