26 Jun 2012

Billy Budd, ENO

Billy Budd, foretopman — and self-styled ‘King of the Birds’ — may yearn for premonition to captain of the mizzen top, but there few spirits that fly afloat or soar in David Alden’s dark, oppressive new production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

Indeed, we might start with what Alden’s reading of the opera is not. It is not a naturalist depiction of sea-faring life at a particular historical moment of naval conflict; nor is it an exploration of the psychological and emotional effects of the constraints and isolation on board a naval vessel in time of war. Crozier’s and Forster’s painstaking research into naval history — echoed in the surfeit of realistic detail exhibited in many productions of the work — is here eschewed in favour of a more universal time and setting (with nods towards modernism and beyond).

In fact, there is little even to suggest that we are at sea: the black leather trenchcoats sported by the officers and the sailors’ shapeless boiler suits are suggestive of an early-twentieth century fascist military and an industrial dystopia respectively, and the men cower beside a stark, steel edifice — more dystopian skyscraper than belly of a ship. Vere is worshipped by his crew, with na├»ve patriotic fervour, for his ability to blast the ‘Frenchies’ from the waters; but, clad in a debonair white suit and hunched over his philosophy books in his white tubular-shaped cabin, which resembles a futuristic office, he hardly convinces as a skilful naval strategist and veteran man-of-action.

Neither is Alden’s production really a classic Miltonic conflict, pitching the forces of good and evil. For this Billy, while exuberant and innocent, is not really a shining beacon of innocence and naivety: boisterous and prone to brawl, he does not quite rise to the heroic stature which would inspire his crewmates to insurgency in the moments following his death.

Moreover, while Claggart’s viciousness is clearly fed by his sexual desire for Billy — signalled, in case we had missed it, by his caressing of Billy’s scarlet neckerchief, which he clutches to his groin as he contemplates how he will annihilate this embodiment of beauty, handsomeness and goodness) — even the homosexual subtext of the opera (which draws upon the undefined homoerotic sub-currents latent in Melville’s text) is played down. For surely Vere is also disturbed and damaged by his love for Billy, a love which leads him to condemn Billy to death and himself to eternal remorse. And, while Forster rescued Vere, and his passion, in an Epilogue which transmutes Billy’s benediction, ‘God bless Starry Vere’, into an epiphanic Christian redemption, Alden avoids any crucifixion imagery during Billy’s hanging and brings the drama to a bleak close, the frail, elderly Vere juxtaposed with a blunt image of the brutal events he oversaw in a tableau which fuses the desolate present with the heartless past.

So, shunning both realism and the narrative equivocation which pervades both Melville’s novella and Britten’s score, what does Alden present us with? Not a ‘concept’ perhaps, but rather the depiction of a single mood - claustrophobic oppression — and the physical and emotional fear it engenders in both victim and persecutor.

This repressive ambience is forcefully generated by Paul Steinberg’s fore-shortened stage which forces the men into suffocating physical proximity where lashing violence is permanently on the point of erupting. And it is enhanced by lighting designer Adam Silverman’s dramatic oppositions of prevailing black obscurity and dazzling flashes of illumination.

Most forcefully, though, it is conveyed through the painfully slow movements of the massed seamen as they carry out their duties under the shadow of police baton and yard-arm gallows. Movement Director Maxine Braham ignores the huge rhythmic surges in Britten’s score which intimate both the powerful motions of the sea and the aching repressed emotions within the ship, in favour of severely constrained, stylised choreography: inch-by-inch the men haul a rope or scour the deck, the movements microscopic and quasi-ritualistic. At times this is effective: the injustice and horror of the final assault upon the mutinous crew by a truncheon-wielding militia is heightened by the cinematic slow-motion. Elsewhere, stage action and score seem incongruously at odds, as in the opening scene when the sailor’s propelling cry, ‘O heave’ — so suggestive of the muscular strength which shipboard life physically demands and of the emotional energy which must simultaneously be repressed — is answered visually by near stagnation.

As Vere, Kim Begley took a little while to warm up, and the slight tension in his voice during the Prologue did not help win sympathy for the Captain, who in this production often seems weak, even abhorrent, in his leadership of ‘The Indomitable’. But Begley got into his stride in Act 2: his physical portrayal of Vere’s mental agony during the trial scene was deeply affecting and the anguish of the closing Epilogue was finely portrayed, the slight dryness in the voice suggesting the waning of life and spirit. Benedict Nelson’s Billy was physically buoyant and nimble, freely waving his limbs in boyish exuberance, and shaking his flowing curls, in striking contrast to the rigid restraint of all those around him. But he lacked a similar sturdiness in the voice, and struggled at times to cut through the texture in his numbers with the chorus. However, ‘Billy in the Darbies’ was sweet and mellow, one of the opera’s few moments of intimacy.

Matthew Rose’s Claggart was fittingly satanic; called upon to oversee the arrival of three newly press-ganged recruits, he climbed ponderously and ominously from the belly of the ship like Hades rising from Tartarus. Poised, with rigid self-control, Rose’s dark bass chilled; the force of Claggart’s malignity was disturbingly expressed, as he communicated what Forster (in ‘What I Believe’) called the ‘something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance’.

All of the smaller roles were well executed. Jonathan Summers was an authoritarian Mr Redburn, immediately establishing his authority through voice and manner; Darren Jeffery as Mr Flint and Henry Waddington as Lieutenant Ratcliffe were similarly secure, projecting well. As the old sea dog, Dansker, Gwynne Howell excelled: he tenderly conveyed a weary wisdom and a true compassion — the latter a welcome touch of humanity in this community characterised by mercilessness. Nicky Spence’s Novice dramatically brought the fear and suffering shared but unvoiced by others into the open; he expressively shaped his vocal lines to expose the shame and self-pity of the flogged sailor. But, a minor point perhaps, visually he seemed much too advanced in years for a raw recruit whose lack of stoicism and self-control seem to suggest youthful immaturity and vulnerability.

Edward Gardner brought these competent parts together into an even more impressive whole; he truly understands Britten’s orchestrations and knows how to sharpen the dramatic characterisation through clarity of instrumental colour. Thus, the lyrical swoons of the saxophone deepened the sorrow of the Novice’s dirge and, when recalled at the close of Claggart’s aria of confession and avowal, indicated the master-at-arm’s unshakable hold over the young boy. Gleaming trumpet fanfares added a resonance of warfare and suggested Billy’s bright optimism; piercing piccolo squeals enhanced the emotional tension.

The large choral scenes were superb. Gardner whipped up a musical and military maelstrom during the pursuit of the French frigate which melodramatically opens Act 2, while subduing his forces in the singing of the sea shanties to achieve textual clarity and rhythmic buoyancy.

Overall, Alden’s reading is an interesting one, but lacking in something which lies at the heart of both Melville and Britten: ambiguity. Melville deliberately cultivated an air of inconclusiveness in both content and form, declaring, ‘Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges’. Thus, the mists which literally spare the French ship from destruction and metaphorically cloud Vere’s vision, are never lifted. This production is just a bit too unequivocal and clear-cut.

Claire Seymour