When designer Michael Levine and stage producer Deborah Warner began working on what was to be an extraordinary new production of Billy Budd at Madrid's Teatro Real, they concentrated on the stage space and creating atmosphere, rather than representing an abstract model of the 18th-century warship, Indomitable. The Toronto-born designer is particularly creative in his use of large expanses, and in this Benjamin Britten piece communicated amplitude and claustrophobia at once. There was a tremendous sense of movement on a stage full of swaying ropes that the crew often used as ladders. At centre stage, three lateral platforms hung from more ropes, allowing them to lift up and down or swing around. Opening like a vertical fan, we were taken below decks to the cramped and dimly lit crew's quarters, where hammocks swayed to and fro. Another Levine trademark is the way he designs to accommodate large choruses. Here, there were 60 players and 30 actors. The men scrubbed decks, hauled water, wrung out filthy rags and engaged in battle maneuvers. The impact of all this was very powerful indeed--we could almost smell the grit and sweat in the audience.
This was Teatro Real's house premiere of Billy Budd, in a production shared with Paris, Helsinki and Rome. The drama of the battle sequence was enhanced with superb choreography by Kim Brandstrup. Lighting by Jean Kalman and hues of grey in the sailors' shirts communicated intimacy in Levine's enormous expanse. The orchestra and all-male cast were excellent, starting with a sterling house chorus. Jacques Imbrailo was foundling Billy, an angel of God, to be sure: his lithe movements complemented a voice of true innocence and nobility. Toby Spence's experience as Vere was evident, and he was most moving when expressing his divided inner struggle. Brindley Sherratt's Claggart emphasized anger rather than the sinister side of the depraved master-at-arms, and was somewhat lacking in destructive power. Of the secondary roles, Sam Furness stood out as the Novice, along with David Soar and Torben Jurgens as Flint and Ratcliffe. Ivor Bolton conducted the house orchestra with dramatic brio, displaying delicate rhythmical qualities and an exquisite accompaniment of Billys monologue. --Victoria Stapells
Caption: A scene from the Teatro Real Production of Britten's Billy Budd