Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stage Reviews: Britten's 'Billy Budd' at BAM; 'After Midnight' on Broadway

Billy Budd
Composed by Benjamin Britten; directed by Michael Grandage
Performances February 7, 9, 11, 13, 2014
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, New York, NY

After Midnight
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Tickets on sale through August 31, 2014
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Britten's Billy Budd (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Aside from the Met Opera’s revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Benjamin Britten Centenary in New York barely took notice of what was, along with works by Richard Strauss and Hans Werner Henze, the greatest opera oeuvre of the 20th century. But the Brooklyn Academy of Music partially rectified that situation—albeit a month late—by welcoming England’s Glyndebourne Opera, whose electrifying Billy Budd again proves beyond doubt Britten’s theatrical and dramatic mastery.

No Britten stage work (with the possible exception of his final operatic masterpiece, Death in Venice) so brilliantly explores the composer’s recurring theme of the destruction of innocence as Billy Budd, which was adapted from Herman Melville’s novella about an angelic midshipman fated to his tragic demise when he clashes with the inscrutably evil Claggart on board the British warship Indomitable, helmed by the benevolent Captain Vere.

It’s Vere who is the emotional center of any Billy Budd, since Britten originally wrote the role for his lover and best interpreter, velvet-voiced tenor Peter Pears. Happily, director Michael Grandage’s gripping production boasts an indelible Vere in the form of tenor Mark Padmore, whose nuanced portrait of a proud man fiercely torn between military duty and morality is unforgettably moving. Jacques Imbrailo, as Billy, sings with great beauty and intelligence: his final mournful aria has rarely sounded so poignant. Claggart might be evil incarnate, but Brindley Sherratt sings the part with the requisite nuance to develop the character’s ambiguities.

The men of the Glyndebourne Chorus—which has a major role in this all-male opera—sound majestic throughout, particularly in the thrilling pre-battle scene that’s as exciting as anything Britten ever wrote. It’s all been skillfully conducted by Sir Mark Elder on Christopher Oram’s gigantic unit set, a cross-section of the ship that makes palpable the claustrophobia overwhelming the characters and their story. Would that this Billy Budd could run for more than a mere four BAM performances: it deserves to weigh anchor in New York City awhile longer.

I saw a scintillating show called Cotton Club Parade in 2011 as part of City Center’s Encores. Now rebranded After Midnight for an open-ended Broadway run, the show is as good as—maybe even better than—I remembered.

This spectacular revue, set in Harlem of the early 1930s, recreates a typical Cotton Club show of that era with the amazing Jazz at Lincoln Center All-stars performing tunes of Duke Ellington (who led the Cotton Club house band back then), Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, among others,; terrific dancers filling the stage with their wondrous art; and the wonderful singers—several doubling as dancers—whose vocal stylings bring a glorious musical age to vivid life.

With the onstage band often acting as foil to the performers, After Midnight rolls out its 26 musical numbers, tumbling in one after another, each a mesmerizing set piece for dance, song or both, from the explosive Ellington opener, “Daybreak Express,” to the joyous Ellington finale, “Cotton Club Parade.”

Dule Hill, our debonair guide for the evening (speaking texts by Langston Hughes), sings and dances with infectious enthusiasm; the redoubtable Adriane Lenox brings down the house—twice!—with boozily hilarious versions of “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night”; Phillip Attamore and Daniel J. Watts are tap dancers of amazing variety; and American Idol alum Fantasia Barrino—whose last appearance was February 9—soulfully performs standards “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather”. (K.D. Lang replaced her starting tonight, and Babyface and Toni Braxton will do the honors in March.)

The music, in Duke Ellington’s original arrangements, can’t be beat, while director Warren Carlyle’s inventive choreography keeps everything moving—but it’s the performers whose singing and dancing make After Midnight essential Broadway entertainment.

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