Billy Budd

Billy Budd, Op.50 [Opera in Two Acts; Libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the story by Herman Melville]

Captain Vere – Timothy Robinson
Billy Budd – Simon Keenlyside
John Claggart – John Tomlinson
First Mate – Paul Napier-Burrows
Second Mate – Andrew Tinkler
Mr Flint – Pavlo Hunka
Bosun – Nicholas Folwell
Donald – Toby Stafford-Allen
Maintop – Andrew Rees
Squeak – Richard Coxon
Mr Redburn – Ashley Holland
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Simon Wilding [replacing Brindley Sherratt]
Red Whiskers – Adrian Thompson
Arthur Jones – Geraint Hylton
Novice’s Friend – William Berger
Dansker – Gwynne Howell

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Andrew Litton

Director – Neil Armfield
Set designer – Brian Thomson
Costume designer – Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting designer – Nigel Levings

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 3 December, 2005
Venue: The Coliseum, London

This was an extremely satisfying performance that reminded oneforcefully of the magnificence of Britten’s opera – by turns exciting, disturbing and profoundly moving.

Any niggling reservations were largely confined to the staging, theprincipal feature of which was a rectangular platform which rotated and moved up and down, but whose visible (and occasionally audible) hydraulic mechanism was hardly suggestive of an eighteenth-century warship. What it did do – effectively – was to highlight the hierarchical nature of the ship’s crew, with the upper ranks presented literally high up and from where, in the penultimate scene when the men become restive following Billy’s hanging, the officers brutally subdued the potential rebelliousness.

But the excellence of the musical performance ensured that the set and staging did not distract or detract and, indeed, there were some excellent visual moments, such as the mustering of the whole crew for action against the French ship at the start of the second act. This whole scene was tremendously stirring.

Credit for this – and for the musical polish evident throughout – must go to Andrew Litton who conducted with affection, passion and zeal and who inspired a first-rate orchestral response. Such was his enthusiasm that one could forgive some excessively heavy drumming, offset as this was by woodwind playing of delicacy and precision and weighty, expressive string sonority alongside powerful – though not overwhelming – brass.

The cast was of a very high quality and boasted, in the title role and in his antagonist Claggart, artists who are arguably the current leading interpreters of those parts.

Simon Keenlyside’s personable manner and fine baritone combine to create, in Billy Budd, a likeable and sympathetic character totally oblivious to the machinations of Claggart and uncomprehending of them when finally confronted by the latter and falsely accused of spreading seditious thoughts and plotting mutiny. It was easy to understand, through Keenlyside’s portrayal, why he was beloved by the crew of the H.M.S. Indomitable. His singing of his scene ‘Billy in the Darbies’ where he awaits his execution, was touching and never threatened to become inappropriately sentimental – a fine piccolo solo, too. Elsewhere, his ebullience conveyed the good-hearted nature of Billy’s personality.

By contrast, John Tomlinson’s Claggart was the personification ofmalevolence and twisted, perverted intent. His dark timbre is particularly suited to this part, which he sang without rant orexaggeration. By scrupulous attention to the vocal line, this malignant character was most strongly – and chillingly – evoked. An interesting directorial touch was to have Claggart carrying the red neckerchief he had taken earlier from Billy. He sang the start of his big soliloquy ‘O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!’ directly too it. He concealed it close to his chest. Later on, Vere picked it up, and it functioned as a visible symbol of Budd.

Timothy Robinson presented a thoughtful, rather anxious Vere – not a man at ease with himself. Vocally, he was not sufficiently strong in the upper register, but his somewhat plangent tone-quality was not unattractive, and he undoubtedly conveyed Vere’s vacillation following Billy’s killing of Claggart with credibility.

The many characters which make up the ship’s crew were uniformly good, and it would be invidious to single out individuals, though mention should be given to Gwynne Howell as the old sailor and Billy’s friend Dansker for his customary evenness and appropriateness of tone. And Andrew Rees was a remarkable Maintop – unseen but calling out heroically from the upper reaches of the Coliseum.

Even if one had wanted somewhat more, numerically speaking, the augmented ENO chorus was superb. The ‘big’ moments – such as the wonderful sea shanties, the gathering for action and the near-rebellion near the end – were thrilling in impact.

This was a performance altogether worthy of Britten’s great opera.

  • Performances on 3, 5, 8, 12 & 14 December at 7.30, and 10 & 17 December at 6.30
  • Box Office: 0870 145 0200
  • English National Opera

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