Good music festivals start well but end amazingly, and Aldeburgh – the best of music festivals – ended last week with something that amazed, disturbed and overwhelmed, packing so visceral a punch it felt like being flattened by a bus.
It was perhaps the greatest of all Britten’s operas Billy Budd: a Christian myth to the extent that it depicts a world (the self-contained world of a ship at sea) rescued from evil by the sacrifice of a young innocent whose death brings cleansing and catharsis. Britten wrote it on an epic scale that calls for a testosterone-fuelled all-male chorus and orchestral forces too big for an Aldeburgh venue to attempt a full production – which is why the festival had never done it until now. And it was only playing at Snape Maltings in a concert staging, reworked from an Opera North show that first played in Leeds.
But the reworking was inspired. In Leeds the show had mixed reviews, but pared to the essentials here at Snape, with the full force of Britten’s music to the fore, it was electrifying. Roderick Williams beamed with geniality as Budd but left behind a powerful sense of benediction as he faced death. Brindley Sherratt’s Claggart truly terrified. And Alan Oke wrung out his heart as Captain Vere. Astonishing performances.
The rest of Aldeburgh’s final weekend brought a fascinating programme of modern miniatures from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and a crazy concert on Thorpeness Meare which had oboist Nicholas Daniel playing on a pontoon in the middle of the lake, encircled by an audience in rowing boats. It sort of recreated an event that Britten organised in the 1960s, at which history relates that gusts of wind blew the composer’s score into the water. Daniel’s recreation skipped that bit, but it was pleasantly chaotic all the same, with boats colliding mid-performance like aquatic dodgems. Daniel’s playing was, in all the circumstances, stoic. And we almost heard it, when the wind was in the right direction.
Nothing was in the right direction for the new Otello at the Royal Opera House. The chorus looked into the audience for Otello’s ship; the ship arrived behind them, like a comedy routine. And things proceeded that way, in a phony show that lacked conviction and a decent set. It had a superstar in Jonas Kaufmann, coming to Otello for the first time; and he sang with eloquent sophistication. But he didn’t have the bell-like resonance of a Domingo in the old days. Maria Agresta’s Desdemona was capable but not melting with loveliness. And it was only the good, strong Verdian heft of Antonio Pappano’s conducting that gave much to take away and cherish.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection