Billy Budd Review, ENO - Spear's Magazine

Billy Budd Review, ENO

The look and lighting of the production had more resemblance to a Nazi war camp than an eighteenth-century ship

by Melinda Hughes

Perhaps it was a mistake to take a Frenchman with me to see Billy Budd, the story of a British war vessel approaching enemy territory during the Napoleonic wars of 1797. He chuckled uncomfortably during the jaunty trio ‘Don’t Like the French and Their Frenchified Ways’ as naval officers raise a toast and proclaim, ‘Down with the French!’ Oops. I felt that dinner was on me this evening.

This new production of Britten’s haunting opera directed by David Alden, an established international opera director, was stark to say the least and for me, given that it is an all-male cast, it missed the complicated rigging structure of a massive ship which would have visually lifted the scenes. Instead, sailors are toiling wearily in a heavily structured slow-mo formation on the ground.

The look and lighting of the production had more resemblance to a Nazi war camp than an eighteenth-century ship but perhaps this was intentional. It was certainly powerful in its simplicity and Capatin Vere’s cabin, Das Boot style, was very James Bond. There were some clever touches such as the superb Daniel Norman in the role of Squeak exiting on his belly down below and the super punch delivered by Budd in Act Two.

The singing as always at the ENO was first rate; Matthew Rose as John Claggart has a beautiful and interesting timbre to his voice which carried surprisingly well in this big house. Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd possesses a beautiful voice but I felt he was sometimes drowned by the swelling orchestra. He had a rather comical hair-flicking swagger which I sense he was instructed to implement as it felt slightly unnatural. He did indeed look as though he had just stepped out of a salon. Despite the Elnette hair, he was utterly compelling, his acting superb, his phrasing touching and he stole our hearts as the poor stammering scapegoat for a twisted homosexual obsession.

Nicky Spence was impressive as Novice. What a chameleon he is! I have seen him sing many roles and he really has the knack of transforming himself. His voice is not only beautiful but secure and open. There’s none of that narrow British Tenor sound with this chap. He has a wonderful technique and like the rest of his cast, superb diction too.

Ed Gardner seems to totally understand the form of Britten with its other-worldly ebb and flow and I was really drawn in and swept along this rich musical scoring, where scene merges into scene and musical interludes carry you further adrift. There is some stunning singing by the huge male chorus too and the effect is haunting and atmospheric.

I found the libretto, written by Eric Crozier and EM Forster, a masterpiece of prose richly mottled with memorable and profound truisms. The company did a ship-shape job under Captain (or since his recent OBE, should I say First Sea Lord) Ed Gardner.

Billy Budd is on at the ENO until 8 July

Read more by Melinda Hughes