Billy Budd, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012

This Benjamin Britten opera, based on Herman Melville’s story of the same name, is a tragedy set in 1797 during the French Revolutionary Wars. It’s a hugely strong work, and Edward Gardner in the orchestra pit gave it everything. The orchestra played with great power, the chorus was magnificent, and the singers were wonderful.

All images ENO/ Henrietta Butler

The opera begins and ends with Captain Vere, beautifully sung here by Kim Begley. After Claggart, the Master-at-Arms has made his false accusation, Begley came through with great power, “Oh, this cursed mist!” The mist that was hiding the French ship is a metaphor for the confusion created by Claggart, but Vere sees through it, and his “Claggart … beware … The mists are vanishing and you shall fail” makes it seem all will be well. Suddenly things go awry, and Vere fails. When Billy is faced with Claggart’s lies and can’t speak, Claggart laughs in his face, Billy hits out, and Vere abruptly stays aloof. Had they not been at war, all would have been different, but Vere’s failure to find a way out has haunted him for the rest of his life, and Begley gave us a well-nuanced portrayal of this intelligent, sensitive man.

Claggart and the Novice

Matthew Rose as Claggart developed his character from a plain non-commissioned officer to a man of sinister, hidden urges, and his long monologue, “O beauty, o handsomeness … I will destroy you” was delivered from the depths of his dark heart. Benedict Nelson as Billy gave a sympathetic portrayal, and singing of his impending death at the end he came over well, but could not quite rise to the poetry of the music. Some of the other solo performances were wonderfully strong, with Gwynne Howell giving a fine portrayal of the old sailor, Dansker. As the officers, Darren Jeffery, Henry Waddington and Jonathan Summers sang well as Flint, Ratcliffe, and Redburn, with Summers particularly good and showing fine stage presence.

Officers in judgement

After the chorus has let rip with “Blow her away. Blow her to Hilo”, Duncan Rock as Donald was terrific with his “We’re off to Samoa”, outsinging Billy at this point. And Nicky Spence gave a hugely strong rendering of the Novice, only let down by a costume and silly pair of glasses that made him look far older than he is. But the costumes were part of the problem here. This production by David Alden couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it was portraying. The only thing certain is that it wasn’t 1797. The leather trench coats and boots had a Nazi feel about them, and the sailors looked as if they worked at B&Q, but sometimes acted as if they were in a concentration camp. And what were the oil drums doing? The ship is a seventy-four — it says so in the libretto — a battleship with 74 guns that became standard in the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century. And what was the point of that slow motion attack by the marines at the end?

Billy about to hang

The production aside, the performance was superb, and the main character, Captain Vere beautifully sung. The opera ends with his recollection of years ago, “… when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable …” At this point he should be alone, but the production left the sailors in place, all cowed into submission. Odd.

Performances continue until July 8 — for details click here.

One Response to “Billy Budd, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012”

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks Mark. I come straight to your blog as you usually express my feeling more fluidly than I can. Also, given the homoerotic subtext, traditional sailor suits would have worked so much better than the drab overalls. My other quibble was where the action ignored the text – when Vere tells Budd to stand to attention, he should stand to attention, not at ease – or when men told to stand when they are already standing, etc.

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