John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere [Britten’s Billy Budd – Glyndebourne 20 May-27 June 2010]

Written by: Melanie Eskenazi

Melanie Eskenazi talks to John Mark Ainsley about his role as Captain Vere in Glyndebourne’s new production of Britten’s Billy Budd…

Billy Budd GFO 2010: Phillip Ens as Claggart and John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere. Photograph: Alastair Muir

On 20 May, Glyndebourne introduces its first ever production of Britten’s Billy Budd, in which the tenor John Mark Ainsley makes his British role debut as Captain Vere after having triumphed in the part at Frankfurt Opera in 2008. I spoke to him just before the dress rehearsal, and although he admitted that he was “running on fumes”, his enthusiasm for Michael Grandage’s production was very evident.

In the past I’ve agreed with him and many other musicians that it’s not necessarily a good thing to have someone from the world of theatre or film to direct an opera, but in this case the results sound promising: as Ainsley says, “With film, a director is thinking in terms of shots, but in the case of theatre, you still have to consider the interaction between individuals on a wide stage, and Michael is a kind of special case anyway, a really compelling personality with a gift for the theatre, who after a considerable acting career chose to direct spoken drama. I often feel that theatre directors who take on opera are tourists in our world, but in his case he’s pretty much a local in that sense.”

John Mark describes the production itself as a “non-konzept” one, in that it is not a “re-imagining” like the Frankfurt one, which was set in a naval academy at the time of the opera’s composition: Glyndebourne places it on a ship, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, and although there is much period nuance, the director has also focused on atmospheric detail – “It’s extremely claustrophobic, with the feeling that you can never get really far away enough from each other, and that of course is a part of the nature of the confined atmosphere of a ship: I have felt that with many productions, the director and designer have tried so hard to emphasise the grandeur of the sea, the vastness and so on, that if you are not at the white hot centre of the action, you could wander off for a few minutes and go for a walk on the downs, and no one would notice. There’s no chance of that here: there’s no escaping the tension, and you really get the feeling that they are trapped in this situation and that there has to be some sort of dreadful resolution.”

Britten said that it was “the quality of conflict in Vere’s mind” which interested him most, and the production emphasises what the singer calls ‘the conflict between Vere’s earthly duty and his moral duty – and he ducks the moral challenge, then having to live with the dreadful doubt and the fear of what will happen when he meets the greater judge.” Vere is also an intellectual – ‘Starry Vere’ has his head amongst higher things, and it’s safe to say that John Mark should be the ideal singer to capture that aspect of this enigmatic character – “Although Vere is a great traditionalist, his command of the ‘Indomitable’ is unusually modern in that he commands his men not so much by fear as by love and respect – he is a man of action but he’s also a thinker, and the men understand this.”

The historical context also reminds us of how appalling conditions on board were for the sailors, with mutiny a constant threat and the shadow of revolution hanging over the establishment – but the ‘Indomitable’ seems immune to the underlying threat of insurrection due to the even-handedness and ‘truthful’ nature of Vere’s command – his name is of course no accident, with its connotations of ‘Veritas’. As John Mark says, ‘When Billy asks the men about him, they say that ‘Starry Vere’ treats them like his sons, and although as post-modernists we’re all a bit inclined to raise an eyebrow at that, I think we need to take it at face value, as a completely honest remark.”

Billy Budd GFO 2010: Chorus ensemble. Photograph: Alastair Muir

Britten and E. M. Forster (co-librettist) remind us persuasively that the whole idea of mutiny as promulgated by Claggart is a lie, and that the only time the men come near to mutiny is after the death of Billy – this is one of the most emotionally gripping facets of the work. The character of Claggart (sung by Philip Ens) is a highly ambiguous one: “You’d have to be blind not to see the obvious homosexual connotations, but nothing is explicitly stated.” “O beauty, O handsomeness” is rather like Iago and his “He hath a daily beauty in his life” and Forster’s remark to Britten about how he wanted “passion – love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing…” indicates the difficulty of presenting the character. According to John Mark, “this production does not duck the ambivalence of the homo-erotic aspects.”

As far as he is concerned, the piece is very much about good and evil, the devil and the good angel – the word “devil” comes up again and again, as when Vere says “It’s not his trial, it’s mine. It is I whom the Devil waits” – we all have some imperfection, the ‘Devil’ is in all of us, no matter how good we are. Britten’s music supports this atmosphere – “There’s a lot of tussle between B minor and B flat, and Vere you might say ‘tries’ to stay in C major but meanwhile the B minor is pulling in a different direction.” For today’s audience, Vere’s situation is straightforward – “We tend to feel, ‘Oh for goodness’ sake it’s quite clear – provocation and all that’” – and Vere’s ‘sole earthly witness’ is the challenge for the singer – quietly to himself, but this is where he must convey the dilemma that rages in his mind.”

The characters of Vere and Peter Grimes have much in common – “The visceral pain, regret, sorrow and you might say being driven to the brink of madness are all there” – all qualities which the late Philip Langridge brought out so superbly, and I asked John Mark if he felt the burden of Langridge’s interpretation on his shoulders – with typical candour, he replies “No, not really – of course I admire him immensely and recognise his Vere as a great interpretation, and I know that if I managed to step half as deeply into the part as he did I would feel rewarded, but the piece is so rich that if you are in any way creatively receptive, you will find things in it to make it your own, which I hope I’ve succeeded in doing.”

Grimes is very much a part of his future, with details still under wraps, but his post-Glyndebourne schedule is packed with interest – the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July, an Edinburgh Festival performance with The Sixteen on 24 August, and perhaps most intriguingly, he has been tempted back to Vienna for Orfeo – “I did say that I was getting a bit long in the tooth for that, but I’m told that the concept of the production is of an older hero, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.”

John Mark is perhaps most strongly associated with the works of Handel and Mozart as well as Britten, at least in operatic terms, and ideally he would love to “Go back to Semele and Tamerlano as well as Idomeneo and Tito in different styles of production – who knows? I would jump at the chance of any of them!” For the moment, however, we will have to be content with what is sure to be a fascinating interpretation of Captain Vere. He says of the production that it has allowed the singers “…space to express both the characters and the music with intensity” and with Mark Elder conducting, and the young South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo in the title part, we can look forward to what promises to be a great Glyndebourne experience.

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