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Seen and Heard Opera Review



Britten, ‘Billy Budd’: English National Opera, conductor Andrew Litton, 3.12.2005 (ME)



THE ‘INDOMITABLE’ ENO SAILS ON! Why the capitals, I hear you ask? Well, I was just getting rather fed up with all those headlines screaming things like ‘WHAT IS THE ENO FOR?’ and all that easy copy about crises, being provided for the latest semi-literate protégé of whichever ‘Arts Editor’ you care to name - of course, what some would really like is for ENO to fold, thus allowing their beloved Royal Opera to sail off into the sunset, trailing clouds of glory in the shape of yet more subsidy and corporate jollifications. Margaret Thatcher once ominously inquired ‘Why does London need two opera houses?’ and that of course is the subtext here: play up the ‘crisis’ at ENO and maybe – just maybe – we’ll be able to get rid of all that plebby stuff: well, hard luck – however much your researchers tell you that ENO is in terminal decline, a show like this one triumphantly asserts exactly what ENO is ‘for’  - a real company effort, the decks awash (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) with mostly ‘home – grown’ singers giving their all in a production of stunning theatricality, with brilliantly committed playing from an orchestra which sounds as if it would go to Hell and back for its superb guest conductor. 




Simon Keenlyside is a natural for the role of Billy: Forster wrote of Melville’s creation that he has ‘the goodness of the glowing aggressive sort which cannot exist until it has evil to consume’ (Aspects of the Novel) and Keenlyside caught this perfectly: Britten’s presentation of him of course reflects the composer’s preoccupation with innocence destroyed by the hostility of its surroundings, and this singer knows just how to convey that in every nuance. Superbly graceful in his actions, his physical beauty (quite different from the more ‘rugged’ Christopher Maltman, who sang the part with WNO when this production was first seen) renders his predicament all the more poignant, and his singing left little to be desired: ‘Billy in the darbies’ pierced the soul, with the break in the tone at ‘But look: Through the port comes the moon-shine astray’ and the understated fervour of the final lament achieving the kind of stillness and completeness which one so rarely hears.



Keenlyside’s is a genuinely great performance, but not the only one, since the ENO had wisely cast John Tomlinson as an exceptionally cruel Claggart: in a letter to Britten, written in 1950, Forster said ‘I want passion -  love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil. Not soggy depression or growling remorse’ and this was exactly how Claggart is conceived here: no pantomime villain, but as hidebound by the constriction of his passion as a film character played by Eric von Stroheim might be by his anger. ‘O beauty, o handsomeness’ was shattering, Tomlinson’s crystalline diction allowing us to savour every word, his tone so menacing yet so beguiling that we could not avoid thoughts of Iago – ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.’



The third member of the eternal triangle was less strongly characterized by Timothy Robinson, who looks uncannily like Philip Langridge on stage but who does not command the latter’s mastery of Britten’s music. ‘Starry Vere’ is the most enigmatic character of both novella and opera, and this ambiguity is always a challenge to convey: Robinson was at his best in the opening and closing scenes, taking us into his confidence with unaffected skill, but at the more dramatic moments his voice was not quite able to reach the expressive heights. Britten said that it was ‘the quality of conflict in Vere’s mind’ which had attracted him to the subject, and it falls to the Captain to provide the most subtle reflections on the nature of love, duty and law; Robinson may yet be able to evoke our sympathies in this, but at present his characterization is a work in progress.

The three ‘stars’ were supported by a cast which I cannot imagine being bettered anywhere:  Ashley Holland gave a wonderfully ripe characterization as Mr. Redburn, Simon Wilding stood in for Brindley Sherratt as Ratcliffe with notable success, Gwynne Howell was an ideal Dansker, Toby Stafford Allen a warmly convincing Donald, and Adrian Thompson a superb red Whiskers – how good to hear this role being truly sung. The Chorus, as nearly always, covered itself in glory: whether in the rollicking shanties or the perturbed evocations of fear in the face of the enemy or the troubling mists, this was great choral singing, reaching its peak with the growling resentment after the execution, superbly evoking  Melville’s ‘muffled murmur’ -  magnificent.

There was equal excitement from the pit, Andrew Litton driving the players into a near-frenzy: there were moments in the first act where I felt that some singers were being drowned out by the brass, but this was much less evident in the second half - this score requires an orchestra larger than any other in Britten outside of the War Requiem, and it was remarkable that the ENO players achieved such delicate effects when required. The claustrophobia and tension of life onboard a war vessel was brilliantly captured, the contrast between the lively bustle of the men’s activities and the brooding solemnity of the central conflict was finely done, and the sheer quality of the playing was exhilarating: the passage where the orchestra conveys Vere’s breaking of the news of the verdict to Billy, with its lugubrious series of diatonic triads, was simply superb.

Neil Armfield’s production had lost nothing of its original impact, the sparse staging providing all that was needed to frame the crucial conflicts, and the brilliantly deployed hydraulic platform perfectly evoking not only the different levels of the ship but the ever-present movement of the waters below. Armfield deals expertly with the singers, allowing them to give full rein to the music whilst respecting the need to ‘occupy’ them in dramatic terms – you can ask little more of a director, and this sort if thing is the reason why opera is best left to those who are experts in it, rather than drafting in yet another ‘someone from the world of film’ (Intendant - ‘He’s never done an opera before – won’t that be fun?’  Singers -  Well, actually, no, it won’t – it’ll be sheer bloody hell’) because opera is about passionate emotion expressed not in smouldering glances but in music, and for that you need a certain skill: a skill most effectively shown in the superb final scene, where Vere ‘speaks’ to the audience of his regret and reconciliation, and then leaves the stage in silence – a wonderful coup de theatre, and typical of this production’s commitment to the music and the implications of the story.

A great night at the Coliseum, bringing back memories of the glory days of the late eighties – this ‘Billy Budd’ seemed to me to surpass the Tim Albery production, and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that. Melville wrote in ‘White – Jacket’ that ‘As a man – of – war that sails through the sea, so this earth sails through the air. We mortals are all on board a fast-sailing world-frigate…The port we sail from is forever astern…yet our final haven was predestinated ere we slipped from the stocks at creation.’ This production made you feel the truth of that statement, from the claustrophobia of the lower levels to the nagging fears of the mist-swirled Captain’s deck: this utterly gripping spectacle is what opera is all about – this, and a conductor and singers who remind you what excitement can be generated when a great score meets with its equals in interpretation. 



Melanie Eskenazi



Phoographs © English National Opera, Clive Barda


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