ENO Billy Budd: awash on the wide expanses

Claustrophobia seems to me a vital ingredient in the atmosphere of Britten’s below-decks tragedy. It was a quality most notably missing from David Alden’s expansive, flat production for ENO. However good the singing, however spirited the playing, there was a crippling lack of atmosphere to this presentation of Billy Budd.

The setting is indeterminate post-war(ish), guessing from the costumes, although Claggart and his henchman sported a nice line in Gestapo-chic. Where would contemporary opera directors be without that hazy period from about 1945 through to 1960ish? Nauticalia was also notable by its absence, replaced by a large, slightly curved iron hull that ran the width of the stage (and nearly its height), complete with a gantry, that came up and down, cutting off and opening up the stage depth; it also had a reverse, the wooden-strutted interior, up on which various of the characters arranged themselves for poignant moments. Captain Vere’s quarters were blandly ugly, and oddly taken from the set of Alien or something: people emerged from an odd tube on the right of the stage into a bright white concave shell. These latter sets did have the advantange of being brightly-lit, startlingly so, given that the rest of the opera was played in a profound gloom, and for the most part a flatly-lit gloom at that, creating a further barrier to involvement in the story.

It was a shame, because the playing and singing were first-rate. The Billy of Benedict Nelson was not of the greatest vocal power, but he delivered a ‘Through the Port’ of beauty, control and pathos, and he had broadly the dramatic and physical measure of the role. If he seemed almost insufficiently rough-hewn, compared to perhaps Simon Keenlyside in the role, then the same couldn’t be said for his tormentor: Matthew Rose’s Claggart was malevolence incarnate. He slowly bestrode the stage with an oleaginous control, which rendered his sudden violent assault on the Novice (as he bullies him into ‘working’ for him) all the more disturbing and genuinely shocking. That Novice was an excellent Nicky Spence, in clear, clarion voice, and really getting inside the fearful disintegration of someone in his unenviable position.

At the core of the piece (almost making one wonder why it isn’t called Vere, rather than Budd) was the Captain Vere of Kim Begley. Diction clear, tone solid, he was a moving and convincingly tortured captain, putting across a very real sense of the ambiguities of the character.  He sees himself as monarch of his floating realm, allows such evil to prevail, hates it (explicitly, in very direct terms), genuinely regrets the consequences, is trapped by the fear of mutiny that an absence of his ‘enforcer’ might permit, and yet, in fearing mutiny, fails to recognise the admiration that his crew hold for him. It’s a heady mix to roll into one character, and Begley captured as much of it as is possible. His final faltering, diminishing phrase, as the lone sidelight faded upon him, was immensely powerful: and perhaps the production’s most direct and confident gesture.

Jonathan Summers, Darren Jeffery and Henry Waddington were an excellent Mr Redburn, Mr Flint and Lieutenant Ratcliffe respectively, most moving in the judgment scene and nicely bringing out their different sympathies during the proceedings. Daniel Norman was a rather exaggerated Squeak, and Gwynne Howell brought his experience to the jaded Dansker. Duncan Rock stood out as Donald, vocally and [ahem!] physically, fresh from his gay Don Giovanni revels at Heaven.

Edward Gardner’s reading was a little too refined for my liking: I’d have liked a bit more grit from the orchestra, although they played fantastically throughout. Britten certainly seems to agree with the ENO orchestra, pointing up their incisive approach. The chorus were on good form, but I don’t know if it was the placing of them – in blocks across the stage – but the truly magnificent ‘This is Our Moment’ was robbed of its impact for being a little muddy. We were sitting to the side of the Upper Circle, so not sure if this distorted the co-ordination of the very delineated blocks of sound created by this positioning of the chorus.

Overall a committed and spirited performance let down by a slightly lacklustre production.

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