LAST SUMMER, BRITAIN'S GLYNDEBOURNE FESTIVAL premiered a new production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, and all attention was focused on the director, Michael Grandage, whose operatic debut this was. Grandage is the Artistic Director of the famously fertile Donmar Warehouse in London, one of the country's leading theater companies. His many plays there include three hits that recently transferred to Broadway: Frost/Nixon, Hamlet with Jude Law, and Red, for which he won a Best Director Tony Award this year. Grandage is at the top rank of theater directors in the English-speaking world, and so his first foray into opera was watched with great interest. Would he have the skills to take on what is in many ways a very different art form? History shows that not every theater director is successful when he crosses over to the operatic stage.
In the event, the production was a smashing success, receiving ecstatic reviews and playing to sold-out, enraptured houses. I've rarely seen a Britten opera so thoroughly enjoyed by an audience, and while the musical values under conductor Mark Elder were exemplary, much of the credit must go to Grandage. Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville's story, with a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, takes place on an eighteenth-century man-of-war, and Grandage and his creative team - including set designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Paule Constable - put a cross-section of the ship on stage and filled it with extraordinarily specific character detail from every member of the ensemble. His bywords were clarity and atmosphere, the latter achieved without pedantry or fussiness. The direction of the actors was exemplary. Each displayed specific, powerful characterizations, particularly Jacques Imbrailo as a Billy caught halfway between tough and tender and stifled by a shockingly violent stammer. John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere and Phillip Ens as a tortured Claggart also registered strongly, as did the wonderful trio of senior officers: Matthew Rose as Flint, Darren Jeffery as Ratcliffe, and Iain Paterson as Redburn, each conveying vivid individuality in roles that can feel generic. In the penultimate scene, Grandage juxtaposed two interpolated masterstrokes: a heartbroken Dansker, the old salt sailor, carefully tying an expert knot for Billy's noose downstage center, and the older Vere appearing on the sidelines to witness (as he must constantly in his dreams) the hanging he can't - or won't - prevent. Grandage was smart to choose a modern, English-language opera to get his feet wet. The pacing, structure and characterization of twentieth-century works are more congruent to contemporary theater and thus the leap is a little less daunting.
Countless theater directors have jumped into opera in recent years, and this phenomenon has given rise to an ahistorical notion that opera used to be untheatrical until the recent past when companies started bringing in theater talent to redress the balance. The truth is that theater directors have always crossed over into opera although the frequency and efficacy has varied from decade to decade. More to the point, the cry for increased theatrical values on the operatic stage and the resulting commitment to importing legitimate stage directors is nothing new and has in fact been a favored public relations trope for over a century - since the invention, in fact, of the modern notion of the stage director.
For millennia, the duties and responsibilities that we assign to a director today were taken by actor-managers, stage managers and writers. The notion of a singular informing vision that unified all the elements of a production (including the text) grew out of experiments in the late nineteenth century by artists such as George II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, who created the first true modern repertory ensemble with an organic unity of purpose and an acute attention to details of design, deportment and interpretation. Actor-coaches such as Konstantin Stanislavski and designers such as Adolphe Appia began to take on additional duties that centered the elucidation of a play in a single individual who was neither the author nor the company manager. …