Britten: Billy Budd

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 20 June 2012 3.5 stars

Billy BuddBritten’s Billy Budd tells such a tragic tale that it is harrowing to experience even if one just reads the libretto (by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the story by Herman Melville). There is no light relief at all in the story, which centres around the destruction of young Billy by the sadistic Claggart but also portrays cruelty as norm (and as a tool for assuring obedience) on the board of HMS Indomitable, a British war ship during the French wars of 1797.

In his new staging for the English National Opera, David Alden increases the cruelty and suppression – almost unbearably – already inherent in the text. He adds groups of heavily armed guards, evidently to keep the crew on the Indomitable fully suppressed. This concept turns the opera’s scenario more into a concentration camp then into a portrayal of cruel life on a ship. Indeed, we don’t seem to have a ship at all. Paul Steinberg’s set designs look more like a factory or a prison, while Captain Vere’s cabin could pass for an office room anywhere on land.

Presumably Alden wishes to state that cruelty and suppression are not far gone misery, which had to be endured in naval service in 1797, but that they are timeless and can occur anywhere. The possible merit of such a concept is self-explanatory but in Britten’s opera it clashes all way through with the words and, to a lesser extent, even with the music. The sea and the ship are not only at the heart of this opera but, arguably, they may be regarded as additional characters. The concentration camp allegory is supported, whether by accident or design, by Constance Hoffman’s costumes. With the exception of Captain Vere’s white outfit during the central section of the opera, they are all more or less the same: grey and non-descriptive. If one is not familiar with the work, it is often hard to distinguish characters from each other.

For me, the most gripping performance of the evening was Matthew Rose as Claggart. He gives a masterly portrayal of a man who feels compelled to fight his desire. Feeling frightened as well as guilty about longing for the handsome and young Billy, Claggart knows no other defence than the full destruction of the object of his desire. Rose as Claggart is the sinister sadist but, in my reading, also a victim. Homosexual desire in whatever mild form was far from plain sailing in 1797. Rose sings with a beautiful, velvety tone but with full understanding of the importance of the words. When he tells Billy to ‘take care of your clothes’, the warning is a menace as well as hidden, wished for seduction. Rose’s sense of theatre is also of note: when Claggart lifts his hat (for respect or pretended respect), the action is significant and part of the story.

Often Benedict Nelson (Billy) was hardly audible. This may have been the orchestra’s fault, or perhaps it was due to possible first night nerves. On the other hand, Billy’s farewell aria – the gentle rocking, lullaby-like 6/8 song – was shaped exquisitely and it sounded clear despite Britten’s well observed pianissimo markings. The accompaniment here is a lightly scored chamber group; on this occasion with a particularly beautifully played contribution by a solo cello. It remains to be seen whether Nelson’s future lies in opera or Lieder.
Kim Begley (Captain Vere) seemed a bit bland both in respect of diction and dramatically. Vere, of course, is a spineless character – he could have saved Billy but he did not risk putting himself out for saving an innocent man – and Begley’s portrayal may be deliberate. Or, perhaps, I cannot get the late Philip Langridge’s gripping portrayal of Captain Vere out of my head.

It was a privilege to see and hear Gwynne Howell in the minor role of Dansker. Indeed, there was nothing small about the part in Howell’s performance. He represented humanity, as designated by both librettists and composer, and he did it with masterly stage craft as well as with unblemished vocal delivery (this some forty-five years after he first appeared with Sadler’s Wells!).

Both the enlarged all-male ENO chorus and the ENO orchestra responded magnificently to their music director Edward Gardner’s direction. Gardner seems to have an affinity with Britten and he also knows how to control large forces. For my elderly ear drums the loud sections at times sounded just a touch too loud. On the other hand, I welcomed the boys’ choir that is twelve midshipmen instead of four as specified by Britten. With no female voice in the whole opera, the twelve treble voices provided a clearly audible designated contrast to the darkness in the story and in the music.

Billy Budd is a magnificent opera and the ENO does justice to it. Go, but don’t expect light entertainment.

By Agnes Kory

Photo: Henrietta Butler