ENO’s Billy Budd is Dark, Powerful and Electrifying

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Billy Budd: Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor), London Coliseum, 18.6.2012 (CC)

Benedict Nelson: Billy Budd
Kim Begley: Edward Vere Fairfax
Matthew Rose: Claggart
Jonathan Summers: Mr Redburn
Gwynne Howell: Dansker
Daniel Norman: Squeak
Nicky Spence: Novice
Darren Jaffery: Mr Flint
Henry Waddington: Lieutenant Ratcliffe
Michael Colvin: Red Whiskers
Philip Daggett: Arthur Jones
Oliver Dunn: First Mate
Gerard Collett: Second Mate
Andrew Rupp: Bosun
Jonathan Stoughton: Maintop
Duncan Rock: Donald

photo credit: Henrietta Butler

David Alden won awards and heaps of critical praise for his Peter Grimes at English National in 2009. Unfortunately, I was not privileged to see that particular production, but can vouch for the power of this Billy Budd. In doing so, I am aware at the time of writing that I seem to be going against the tide of some critical opinion, which so far seems to have been split. Certain quarters have been less than kind.  At least most critics agree (rightly) on the musical qualities here, particularly those from the pit. The orchestra was on fire throughout. Gardner seemed to understand the teeming dark side of the opera, and in tandem with the dark production (courtesy of director David Alden, Paul Steinberg’s sets and Adam Silverman’s dramatic lighting), the effect was electrifying. Any lighter, sea-shanty moments were subsumed into this vortex of seaborne darkness. The overall effect was a hypnotically fascinating glimpse of a world that one would never wish to be a part of but which, nevertheless, it was impossible to stop watching. The humans lose their individuality, subsumed into a microworld in which emotions are visciously magnified.

The brass in particular was exemplary, riding the sonic storms with real aplomb. Gardner clearly understands Britten’s scoring (Britten is one of the great orchestrators) and he certainly knows how to draw bleak sonorities from his players. He can draw long lines, although I sometimes wanted a more masterly hand over the larger paragraphs.

The opera is supposed to be set on the battleship Indomitable in the summer of 1797. This is clearly not 1797; instead, this is an anonymous European ship with black military uniforms implying a Russian (or Neo-Nazi?) slant. Homoeroticism is there, in this all-male world, but it is not overplayed, merely one more cog in a jet black machine. Yet, against this dark backdrop, Vere appears in impeccable Persil-white suits, visually separated from his crew, in a world of his own.  Kim Begley was the big-name Vere here, beautifully strong voiced and massively confident from all angles. His Prologue and Epilogue, bookends of heightened tension and power, seem etched in my memory. Begley has the ability to draw one in, to be utterly convincing.  The part of Vere was written for Peter Pears (and the Decca DVD, 074 3256, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, features Pears in an unforgettable assumption). Yet Begley made the role utterly his own, and the highest compliment that can be paid is that that he made one forget Pears; (that his voice is so different probably helped.

The title role was taken by ENO Harewood Artist Benedict Nelson, a Daily Telegraph Newcomer of the Year in 2009, in what might here be a career-defining role assumption. He certainly looked the part, a virile young lad ready for whatever the high seas can throw at him.  If his voice is not imbued with shattering power, it is a fine, lusty one, and Nelson can act, too.  Gardner ensured that the orchestra did not drown him (no pun intended!) so we could enjoy every nuance.

Gwynne Howell brings a wealth of experience to the most human part of all, Dansker. Perhaps it is with him that we find a plateau that we the audience can meet his character emotionally, and he can act as a bridge to the alien terrain of the rest of the ship. In Howell, acting and singing merged into a total assumption. Up there with Howell and Nelson was Matthew Rose in the part of Claggart. Rose knows that less is more, and his assumption was all the more terrifying for it, his voice conveying all the malice needed, his gestures spare and poignant.

Michael Colvin and Philip Daggett made characterful impressed men (Red Whiskers and Arthur Jones respectively). Much thought had evidently been accorded to the casting, as not only was there no weak link, but the carefully differentiated voices seemed perfect for each character.

The Chorus of English National Opera is so often relegated to a token positive gesture from the reviewer at the end of the review. Well, here we are at the end of the review but they deserve so much more than a mere gesture. An integral part of the opera, they provided a primal sonic force that acted as a bedrock against which all else unfolded with unnerving and unerring inevitability. The sea shanty “We’re off to Samoa” in Act One was lustily and brilliantly delivered. Tremendous stuff.

Colin Clarke