Overwhelming Britten

Britten – Billy Budd.

Captain Vere – Kim Begley

First Mate – Oliver Dunn

Second Mate – Gerard Collett

Mr Flint – Darren Jeffery

Bosun – Andre Rupp

Donald – Duncan Rock

Maintop – Jonathan Stoughton

Novice – Nicky Spence

Squeak – Daniel Norman

Mr Redburn – Jonathan Summers

Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Henry Waddington

John Claggart – Matthew Rose

Red Whiskers – Michael Colvin

Arthur Jones – Philip Daggett

Billy Budd – Benedict Nelson

Dansker – Gwynne Howell

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Edward Gardner.

Stage Director – David Alden

Coliseum, London.  Sunday, July 8th, 2012.

Much has been written about the production of Les Troyens at Covent Garden over the past few weeks but relatively little has been written about Billy Budd at ENO.  When all is said and done, I know which one for me was the most emotionally moving.  Indeed, this was one of the most heart-wrenchingly moving performances I have seen in an opera house in a very long time.  While this is not a work I love as much as Les Troyens, when done properly, it can still pack a punch.

The truth is, that up until the middle of Act 2, I had the impression of watching a competent performance.  This was the two act version, incidentally.  Yet, once we reached Billy’s famous aria something happened, the performance just entered a completely different league.  I left the theatre completely numb and unable to speak.

The production was set in a ship that could have been anywhere and costumes (Constance Hoffman) were military and could have been from any time over the last 50 years.  The sets were relatively basic and the atmosphere somewhat claustrophobic, to me it felt like more of a submarine than a ship.  The opening chorus saw the sailors cleaning the floor rather than pulling.  It was also a brutal regime, with henchmen with batons constantly looking to discipline the sailors.

Kim Begley’s voice is not as fresh as it once was.  He was all too easily believable as the old man of the prologue.   Yet, he was able to manage his resources well to give an effective performance.  It wasn’t always vocally elegant but it did give a strong impression of a man wracked with guilt.  Matthew Rose’s Claggart was extremely physical – I really liked the way he portrayed a fate worse than flogging – and the latent homoerotic desires he harboured for Billy were well brought out.  Vocally he was also strong and this role suited him extremely well.

The rest of the cast were very strong – Gwynne Howell’s Dansker and Duncan Rock’s Donald were the pick of the supporting cast.  I would certainly like to see Duncan Rock as Billy one day.  Francine Merry’s chorus were on superb form.  Blend and amplitude were superb and the big climaxes were wonderfully done.

I found Edward Gardner’s conducting initially somewhat unwilling to press ahead with the drama – the softer moments (such as the prologue and epilogue) were wonderfully done but later on, towards the end of the first act the orchestra opened up wonderfully and showed off some terrific brass playing.  The start of Act 2 was superb.

Where this performance really took off though was toward the end of Act 2.  Up until that point I had found Benedict Nelson’s Billy to be somewhat anonymous.  I found that he didn’t quite dominate the stage in the way the he should have.  However, once he reached his wonderful aria, I was completely overcome by emotion.  I imagine it was his use of words, the easy legato, the perfect diction that did it.  Yet I have never heard a performance of that aria so devastating in its portrayal of a man facing certain death and knowing exactly what was going to happen to him.  The execution scene was unbearably moving and Begley’s performance of the epilogue was beautifully done.

This was a superb afternoon at the opera and reminded me of the power that this art form can have at its very best.  Unfortunately, the auditorium was only about half-full for this final performance of the run while Les Troyens was completely sold out.  Even though Berlioz’ magnum opus is a passion of mine, it is clear that the more overwhelming operatic experience of the two was at ENO.

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