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Billy Budd – English National Opera at the Coliseum, London

Composer: Benjamin Britten

Libretto: E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier

Director: David Alden

Reviewer: Lilla Grindlay

[rating:3.5]

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is the tragic tale of an idealistic young man who is press-ganged to join the crew of the ship the HMS Indomitable in 1797. Billy is a strong and able sailor with only one physical defect – an occasional stammer. Conditions on board ship are tough, with officers enforcing a brutal regime against the common sailor, but Billy’s innocence, good looks and optimism soon make him a favourite among the crew. But the sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggart loathes Billy for his goodness. Claggart sets in motion a chain of events which leads to Billy being hanged, an action which causes rebellion among the outraged crew.

Like Peter Grimes, Billy Budd is an opera which has Britten’s love for the sea at its core. There is little or no sense of the sea in David Alden’s production, and this takes some getting used to. Instead, Paul Steinberg’s bare and dramatic set translates an 18th-century naval vessel into a monstrous industrialised unit. There are strong echoes of the concentration camp here. Broken-spirited sailors are forced to undergo monotonous and exhausting work, under the watchful eye of armed officers in the high leather boots and trench coats of the prison guard. This interpretation could have been an interesting one. Britten was a conscientious objector in World War II, and there are many links to be made between the contained and claustrophobic environment of ship and labour camp. But this is only one layer of many to a set that is suffering from an identity crisis, part factory, part prison, and part submarine. The result is an unsettling sense of anonymity that is not helped by the fact that the libretto is so wholly bound up with the language of the sea. The imagery of the words frequently pulls against the imagery on the stage in a manner which detracts from the dramatic tension as opposed to creating a credible sense of parallel narratives.

There are moments, however, when the compelling and tragic story of the opera is not engulfed by the staging and interpretation. Billy Budd has an all male cast – the only high-pitched voices we hear are those of an excellent and energetic group of children. This makes it a very different listening experience, and the men’s chorus, trained by Francine Merry, brings a thrilling richness to the ensemble sound. The orchestra, under the direction of Edward Gardner, succeeds in adding both excitement and pathos to Britten’s complex musical landscapes.

Matthew Rose’s Claggart is sung with in a gorgeous velvet tone, but there is a real menace beneath the velvet, in a nuanced performance which mixes pure evil with a tortured homoerotic desire for Billy. Also outstanding is Nicky Spence as a young Novice who is brutally flogged and turns informer for Claggart. Spence’s interpretation of this as a clever but cowardly misfit is played to perfection, and his beautifully-resonant tenor voice is made to sing Britten. Benedict Nelson’s Billy Budd sometimes feels vocally muted, but his lamentation before dying is exquisitely and intelligently performed.

Ultimately, however, Billy Budd is not Billy’s story but that of ‘Starry’ Vere, the ship’s captain, who allows the boy to be hanged even though he knows in his heart of hearts that he is good. Kim Begley’s Vere is a white-suited intellectual, who pores over books in his cabin, blind to the true realities of the sadistic regime he heads. As the opera closes, we are left with Vere on stage, a broken old man, haunted by his memories of Billy. It is a truly moving ending, and indicative of the raw emotion that this performance, for all its flaws, does succeed in evoking.

Photo: Henrietta Butler

Runs until 8 July

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