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 naïve 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
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
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.