Six years ago, in 2007, we interviewed a promising young South African baritone called Jacques Imbrailo and chatted to him about his forthcoming appearance in Britten’s Owen Wingrave at the Linbury in the ROH. Since then, much has happened to Imbrailo. He was about to take part in that year’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and he duly walked off with the audience prize. His career began to take off and he found himself, in 2010, in the title role of what turned out to be a stunning Billy Budd, directed by Michael Grandage and a definite highlight of the Glyndebourne season that year. Now he is about to reprise the role – there are seven performances of Billy Budd this year, from 10 to 25 August – and we caught up with him in mid-rehearsal. What was it like, coming back to Glyndebourne and singing this extraordinary role in this extraordinary opera three years later?
“You have to remember that in 2010 I was really young and I really did not have that much stage experience. I can remember being absolutely terrified as the rehearsal process came to an end and I was due to go onstage and sing it for the very first time. I wondered whether or not my voice would hold, whether I would manage to convey all that I wanted to with the part. But I also remember, as the opera got under way, suddenly feeling more confident and finding that my voice was working, as it should. It was the most amazing experience, and one that I am now going to repeat all over again”.
So what can Imbrailo see in the part of Billy that maybe he could not before? “I don’t think it is really a question of that. And anyway, I have sung Billy in the meantime, in a completely different but nonetheless equally valid production [by Richard Jones] in which the whole opera was set in a naval academy. I could relate to that – I grew up in South Africa and I went to boarding school – so all the discipline, and the rules and regulations, all seemed to come quite naturally and inform the production. But now I’m back in Michael’s production – which I love – and what I would say is that my voice is that much stronger, I can handle the part with more ease and as a result, I can get more colours into the voice, and I feel that much more at home with the whole thought process. I am really enjoying being back this time!”
This year the opera is being conducted by Glyndebourne’s former Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, as opposed to Sir Mark Elder last time round. A different approach? “No, I wouldn’t really say that. There are marginal differences, slightly faster tempi here and there, and slightly different dynamics, but the truth is that Britten wrote this music with such specific markings and instructions, you can’t stray very far! He thought of absolutely everything, and if you stick rigidly to the score, as marked, you simply cannot go wrong. It’s all there on the page – and everything works”. But there must be scope for individual interpretation. “Oh, of course: the whole rehearsal process brings out the dynamic, and the psychological interaction between the characters, and there will be lots of new things to look at and listen to this time round – Mark Padmore, for example, who is singing Vere and who will be absolutely fantastic. And I think this time that I shall be able to convey Billy’s stammering, and the tragedy that it triggers, much better than last time round. I was helped hugely in 2010 by Derek Jacobi, who coached me in how to stammer onstage, and how to portray a body that is unable to express in words what the character is thinking. It involves some very violent, physical action, and when I started, I found that I was creating so much tension in my neck and throat that I could barely sing at all. But this time round I have found the whole process somewhat easier – it’s not just a question of singing the notes and it’s not a vocalisation of the stammer, it’s a question of keeping on the rhythm of Billy’s lines and allowing a true stammer to obtrude at the key moments”. Imbrailo gives me a quick demonstration of what he means, and it is absolutely fascinating! The more so, in a way, as true stammerers are in fact often able to sing without a trace of their speech impediment – and yet, in Britten’s masterly through-composed score, the key tragic moment has to erupt out of Billy’s complete inability to articulate his own defence.
Are there any special features of singing in an all-male opera cast – do the singing dynamics have to change in any way? “Once again, I would say that Britten did all the work. With these all-male harmonies, he created an opera with its own beauty and its own harmonic dimensions. We have just been rehearsing the battle scene, and the top mate (who cannot be seen onstage as HMS Indomitable prepares for action) went out into the auditorium, and sang and listened from there. He found the noise made by the cast and chorus simply awesome! There is some really exciting stuff – and a huge benefit of this production is the very clear storytelling that is involved.” Having seen this Billy Budd when it opened three years ago, I would concur with that.
After Glyndebourne, what next for Imbrailo? “Well, in personal terms we are expecting a baby in September, so I’m very excited about that. But in the autumn I’m singing Don Giovanni with Scottish Opera, and I’m really looking forward to it. Then, early next year I have another Billy Budd in Brooklyn, and later in 2014 I’m singing Valentin (in Gounod’s FaustM) in Baden Baden”. How is his voice standing up to increased exposure and a variety of new roles? “I think the most important thing is to sing with your own voice. It’s always a challenge to be patient, but I do not think you can rush these things. I still work regularly with my teacher, and I hope that when I sing, I am sounding my age and not sounding older. Of course, I would absolutely love to sing a role like Posa (in Don Carlos) but I have to wait until the time is right – I must not sing it too early. The Verdi roles are challenging, but I’ll get to them in due course”. I have no doubt that he will.
In conversation, Imbrailo is entertaining, relaxed, but always serious and persuasive about his art – he gives the impression of thinking quite deeply about everything he does, the approach he takes to his singing and to his career. I found him a delightful conversationalist. When I gave this production a five star review in 2010, I wrote of Imbrailo: “but from the moment he leapt onstage, Imbrailo personified the lithe, athletic, open, fresh seaman that Billy Budd is supposed to be (“one in a million” as Claggart mutters malevolently). The voice has an open baritonal ring, with a nobility of tone, that informed Imbrailo’s whole performance – and energetic as his singing was, so the force that he exerted to overcome the stammer made his eventual fatal blow to Claggart’s head all the more believable. As Imbrailo played him, this Billy Budd truly was an innocent force of nature – refusing to believe anything bad of his fellow man, exuberantly loving life aboard, and naively but totally confident of his likely promotion to be foreman of the mizzen top when his summons to Captain Vere’s cabin presages anything but that. This was a gloriously and naturally sung Billy Budd that will remain in the mind".
The thought of a baritone of stronger voice, with more colour, and more relaxed in the role is an enticing one. This 2013 revival should prove to be a spectacular success.
Jacques Imbrailo is currently appearing at Glyndebourne in Britten's Billy Budd.
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