Billy Budd at ENO

8 Jul

Everyone gets excited about the homo-erotic sub-text Billy Budd and you’d have to be pretty blind to be unaware of it.  Aside from Claggart’s admiration, the Budd/Vere duet in Act 2 strikes me as one of the finest duets of unstated gay love in opera. For me, however, what is far more interesting is the politics.  It’s an opera about oppression and the class system and the way in which human beings treat each other.  It describes the way the upper classes control the lower ones through violence and fear and where the letter of the law has to be followed even where plain justice demands the opposite result.  For me it’s a bleak, disturbing picture with nothing to suggest any redemption: I don’t think I’ve ever found myself convinced by the idea that in some way Vere is saved by Budd. He hadn’t the guts to save Budd’s life but in some way Budd’s death redeems him, so that’s alright then. It may mean more to Christians who buy the idea of redemption generally but, to me, it doesn’t work.

You rarely see a bad performance of it, but for me, the most effective ones have been those which don’t worry about creating the historic detail of what a ship in 1797 and it’s crew but concentrate on the power imbalances and the relationships – Graham Vick’s production for Scottish Opera in 1987 was a particularly brilliant way of using a unit set with some element to suggest a ship manage to make this a universal story. And I really admired David Alden’s latest ENO production ( I saw the first night on 18th June) precisely because I thought it got more or less to heart of the politics and the brutality behind the opera.

The sets are enough to suggest a ship (or possibly a submarine) – rounded wooden and metal walls, tunnel like corridors – but also suggest more.  The men are in their subterranean wooden/metallic quarters while Vere has a bright white cabin. The crew is brilliantly delineated – the bulk of the men in overalls, kept under control by different levels of police with leather uniforms and batons;  there are marines to keep guard and you feel that the main problem is not the French but keeping the men under control. Alden deals with them particularly finely in the beginning ad Act II by delineating the different ranks closel, very much as they are defined in the text.  It’s a dark, period-less setting that struck me as working really well.  Only one cavil. The curtain descends for scene changes: I found this jarring – more so than I do in Grimes. In previous performances, I’ve barely noticed the interludes as such – they are part of the drama and it’s been possible to move location fluidly without needing to drop the curtain. I remember how in Vick’s production we just looked at the bare stage varied only by subtle lighting changes as those chords come one after another following the trial scene. Here concentration faded slightly.

Alden gets some very fine performances from his cast. Matthew Rose struck me as giving a very remarkable performance as Claggart. This was an introverted, unctuous Claggart who managed to suggest better than anyone else I have seen the evil, self-loathing, nihilism of “oh beauty, happiness, goodness” – physically rolling twisted on gthe floor and making a fetish out of the neckerchief he’d taken from Billy. I thought this was among the finest Claggarts that I’ve seen. It’s good to see Kim Begley back as Vere, perhaps not so free vocally as he once was, but suggesting the intelligence and weakness of the man.

Benedict Nelson was Budd. He seems to be the ENO’s young baritone of choice at the moment.  He looks good and has the size and strength for the part; he conveys the honesty and enthusiasm of the man. He sings it well enough, but am I the only one who isn’t that excited by the sheer quality of the voice which, to my ears, sounds anonymous and without the individuality that Allen, Keenlyside and Maltman possessed when they first took on the role?  He was perfectly credible and sang his farewell affectingly but he didn’t seize the stage and the role as others have.

The support was really good. Jonathan Summers made a strong, slightly ambivalent, almost sinister, Mr Redburn – easily the most memorable performance of the role I’ve seen. Nicky Spence was a bespectacled Novice who sang really clearly. Gwynne Howells seems to have singing Dansker for as long as I’ve been seeing Budd and is really good.  The chorus were on fabulous form – precise, together and singing with real power.  There’s a particularly interesting image of them at the beginning of the last scene where they face the audience, with their mattresses like a group of refugees or prisoners, and sing that shanty straight out to us.  Diction was excellent and you barely needed the surtitles.

Edward Gardner rarely puts a foot wrong and this was up to his normal standards – clear, dramatic and kind to his singers.   Perhaps there were times when it was a bit slow – I was conscious of what a long opera it is and, at times, how slowly it moves.  But this didn’t in any way compromise one of ENO’s very finest evening.

I was left slightly shaken and depressed by the bleakness of the piece while finding that, at every visit, I get something more out of it.

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