Tuesday 19 June 2012

Billy Budd - ENO @ The Coliseum

Britten's Billy Budd, based on the Hermann Melville novel of the same name (most famous as the author of Moby Dick), is one of his most overtly sexual operas.  Britten expanded upon Melville's exploration of male relationships within the context of his own homosexuality, for an opera with some disturbing undertones.  Yet this new production by ENO, directed by David Alden, plays down the sexuality of the piece for a lucid, yet straightforward, interpretation.

Billy Budd takes place aboard the 'HMS Indomitable', a world of strict rules and regulations.  The Captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, (played with penetrating authority by tenor Kim Begley) is forced to choose between his love for new recruit Billy (the embodiment of youth, goodness and beauty) and his duty to the navy when Billy accidentally murders the cruel Master-at-Arms aboard the ship.  It's this dichotomy of love and duty that forms the backbone of the opera, with Alden leaning heavily towards the latter.

Alden's 'Indomitable' eschews the eighteenth century naval tropes the libretto demands and instead takes on an almost communist ideology.  With the events of the opera paralleling (temporally) the French Revolution, this concept becomes a subtle anti-British sentiment that transforms the politics of the ship into a totalitarian dictatorship by comparison to the "Frenchies".  The industrial setting is more modern, claustrophobic and hellish; the officers patrolling the ship in gun-metal grey trench coats and long leather jackets, their batons subtly indicating the sadist tendencies of the senior crew.  The choreography is highly regimented and linear and the set is sparse and starkly monochromatic to represent a clear divide between good and evil.  In this interpretation, Captain Vere is tragically bound by duty - the residing factor in his failure to save Billy - though the connotations of his celestial white dress feel forced.

The twisted sexuality of the opera falls almost entirely on Matthew Rose's John Claggart, the paedophilic Master-at-Arms.  In a menacing aria towards the end of the first Act, his sexual feelings towards the young Billy are explicitly marked and, by his own self-hatred, his intention to destroy Billy is announced. In forcing the Novice (played by Nicky Spence, who successfully balanced naivety and nastiness) to bribe Billy into mutiny, Claggart's position as a sexual deviant is unmistakeable, abusing his position of power for his own perverse gains. Rose's cold portrayal is suitably sinister, his deep bass tones ominous and intimidating, his feelings fetishized through the provocative use of Billy's scarf.

Yet this is the predominant instance of the opera's sexuality, which is elsewhere underplayed.  The subtext is arguably more noteworthy than the primary plot, especially in the context of Britten's own life and homosexuality.  The result, here, is a lucid plot that lacks some depth in its narrative - in total contrast to Alden's highly sexualised production of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream last year.

Though fidgety in his early depiction of the bounding Billy, Benedict Nelson really hits his stride in his final aria where Billy is resigned to death, his beautifully rich voice well-suited to this more lyrical moment.  The all-male chorus offer the most arresting performance, however, in a bravado display of masculine power and strength - particularly the sea-shanties.  The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, is able to match this power.  Britten's orchestration explores extremes of tessitura - from the highest piccolo flutters to the deepest contrabassoon rumblings.  At times, like the narrative, the tempo feels laboured, matching the slow-motion plodding work of the seamen.  But when the needs arise, the orchestra comes alive in sprightly fashion.

Alden's opera swaps sexual tension for puritanical authority, diminishing the opera's major subtext.  Yet this Billy Budd remains a gripping, if heavy-handed, production.


Watch: Billy Budd runs until 8th July.