The house was full for this eagerly awaited new production of Billy Budd, featuring the “dream team” of Simon Keenlyside as the handsome, innocent Billy and John Tomlinson as the evil sadist Claggart, set on destroying him. And ENO needs good houses right now, with the recent rapid departure of Seán Doran as Artistic Director and Chief Executive and audiences reportedly running at less than 30% for some recent productions.
That Billy Budd should pack them in is terrific, if a little surprising. Madam Butterfly yes, but Benjamin Britten is not always a crowd-pleaser and this opera, with its all-male cast, homoerotic undertones (or overtones, as in this production) and emotionally draining subject matter is not to everyone’s taste, despite its beauty and power.
Herman Melville’s novella set on HMS Indomitable, a British warship during the French wars in 1797, is a classic tale of good and evil. Billy Budd, newly pressed into service, is handsome, good and an enthusiastic recruit – seemingly any Master-at-Arms’ dream recruit. His arrival disturbs the latter, however; the suggestion that homosexual attraction is the problem is unstated in Melville’s writing, but much discussed since its delayed publication in 1924.
Does this also apply to the Captain, Starry Vere, who fails to save Billy from his fate? The libretto (by E M Forster and Eric Crozier) hints as much, and this production directed by Neil Armfield brings out the homoerotic aspects more than any I have seen. When Claggart is seen ecstatically sniffing Billy’s discarded scarf (one of the most powerful inventions of this production) the message is clear. Alas, Claggart’s almost white-face makeup, coupled with some unfortunate lighting, makes him more of a pantomime villain than the evil schemer he is.
Regrettably, the whole production (shared between Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia) undermines the power of this opera. The one set is a revolving, tilting platform, almost always brightly lit, coupled with two movable staircases, rather like those used to disembark from planes. These elements are almost constantly on the move, just occasionally to good effect – when the Indomitable is squaring up to face an enemy ship, there is a wonderful sense of the slow, almost balletic manoeuvring of the vessel. Most of the time it’s just a worry that the sailors are likely to slip on the steeply pitched “deck”, and there is no real sense of the claustrophobia of a ship of that era.
A backdrop “sail” provides a screen for a projected cloudscape, always grey/brown; once (only once) blue sky and white clouds are projected onto the deck itself. What point was being made was unclear, and this was true of many of the details during the evening. It was almost as if someone had come up with a nice idea, and it had been included with no thought as to the cohesion of the treatment as a whole.
The singing, on the other hand, is faultless. Simon Keenlyside reportedly considers he’s getting a bit long in the tooth for Billy, but his continuing athleticism and acting ability make this a nonsense. One may question whether his monkey-like swings around bits of the staging are strictly necessary, but there’s no doubting his enthusiasm and fresh-faced fervour as the newly recruited Billy: he is absolutely believable. His moving aria Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray as he awaits hanging is a triumph; the lyrical voice beautiful even when cracking with emotion. This is surely the finest portrayal of Billy for years, eclipsing for me that other favourite, Sir Thomas Allen.
John Tomlinson is almost unrecognisable as the Master-at-Arms, Claggart; voice and stance exude malice and this is a fine portrayal only marred by the above-mentioned make-up. As Starry Vere, Timothy Robinson makes a huge impression. His voice is reminiscent of the young Peter Pears (for whom the role was written) and he is a dignified, authoritative and tortured character.
Smaller parts are also well handled, Gwynne Howell making a particularly sympathetic Dansker, and the chorus makes a wonderful noise especially in the exciting moments when the ship is ready to engage the enemy.
Conductor Andrew Litton could be more sensitive in terms of balance: the diction of all three principals (and indeed most of the cast) is exemplary, the only problems arising when the orchestra should be quieter but doesn’t seem to have a volume button.
So a good night, but not a great one unless you shut your eyes. Did we really need a new production? The old ENO one was splendid, and this one fails on far too many points. But this cast has to be heard.