OPERA NEWS - Billy Budd
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In Review > International

Billy Budd

English National Opera

In Review ENO BIlly hdl 912
Nelson and Begley, Billy Budd and Vere at ENO
© Henrietta Butler 2012

Britten’s Billy Budd has done well in the U.K. in recent years, with strong productions by Francesca Zambello (the Royal Opera, 1995), Neil Armfield (Welsh National Opera, 1998, and ENO, 2005) and Michael Grandage (Glyndebourne, 2010) all helping to firm up its place in the regular repertoire. ENO has now renewed its commitment to the piece in a staging (seen June 23) by David Alden, working alongside designers Paul Steinberg (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Adam Silverman (lighting). 

Alden’s realization was different from most other local approaches in jettisoning the original period (1797) and, indeed, any visibly obvious ship at all. Instead, Steinberg offered a sequence of striking, semi-abstract metallic constructions, which might (or might not) represent the internal spaces of some large modern vessel or industrial unit. Hoffman’s costumes were also generic rather than specific, their overall look perhaps suggesting the early Soviet era. Rather than focusing on the iniquities of the Royal Navy’s treatment of its men during the French Revolutionary Wars, the result tended to open the piece out from its immediate context toward something more universal.

As with all productions of the piece, a large, entirely male cast had to be assembled; in this instance, many of the U.K.’s leading male opera performers were all together on the same stage on the same night. Distinguished in their smaller contributions, for instance, were Gwynne Howell’s touchingly humane Dansker (though a few lower notes escaped him); Jonathan Summers’s entirely authoritative Mr. Redburn, his dark baritone in splendid condition; and Darren Jeffery’s eminently solid Mr. Flint. Also among the more noticeable individual contributions were Nicky Spence’s Novice, a poignant study in cowed abjection voiced in a thin, reedy tenor, and Daniel Norman’s even more pathetic Squeak, couched in a precise and delicate tenorino.

The three main roles were also satisfyingly cast. Young baritone Benedict Nelson sang the title role. His is a lyrical approach, not yet fully developed to its full vocal or dramatic potential but already along the right lines. Kim Begley brought experience and insight to Captain Vere, his voice tiring slightly in the epilogue right at the end of a demanding evening, but otherwise perfectly engaged, its tensions skillfully revealing the complexity of the admired leader who fails to stand what he knows to be the right moral ground at the work’s moment of crisis. Matthew Rose’s Claggart was outstanding. Without a trace of overplaying his amply villainous hand, Rose used his large, centered bass to chart the inner emptiness and pain of a character whose external appearance presents malevolent strength and brutality.

ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner, took charge of this assignment. He drew exceptionally confident playing from the orchestra, the brass section in particular enjoying a heroic night, while the members of the expanded ENO chorus sang their hearts out in the shanties and in the battle scene. Gardner also showed a keen appreciation of the score’s trajectory, pacing its highs and lows with security and propounding its imaginative detail with evangelical fervor. spacer


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