Saturday 30 June 2012

Billy Budd at ENO, or Britten, Gardner and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra Triumph over Others' Inadequacies

I bought a ticket for this show with considerable misgivings. Unlike others I detested both previous efforts by the Alden brothers to direct Britten – Peter Grimes and A Midsummer Night's Dream). But Billy Budd holds a special place in my affections. I find it an extraordinarily powerful work which is not performed nearly as often as it should be. Indeed I would argue that it deserves to be as prominent in the repertory as Grimes, and in the end the opportunity to hear it live again was too enticing to pass up. Overall, the evening was worth it.

The best thing about this performance was the quality of the singing and playing from the ENO Chorus and Orchestra. The augmented male chorus produce a volume of sound which took me back to the glory days of the house. The orchestra deliver a blinding account of the score shaped mostly compellingly by Edward Gardner on the podium. His shaping is perhaps not quite as absolutely spot on as Elder's was at Glyndebourne in 2010 but it's pretty damn close.

In terms of the individual roles things are a little more uneven – but many of them are not helped by the problematic production. Darren Jeffrey (Flint), Henry Waddington (Ratcliffe) and Jonathan Summers (Redburn) bring off the trial scene effectively and Summers announcing the execution in the final scene was chilling. Gwynne Howell's Dansker got a bit swamped in the final scene of Act 1 but elsewhere his singing has real humanity and he radiated presence despite the oddities of the direction. Nicky Spence's Novice has garnered considerable critical praise – he sings the part well but I found his acting post-flogging unconvincing and he was particularly hampered by the costuming and make-up which to my eyes made him look like something out of a Hammer horror film. The off stage sailors were well sung.

Of the three principle roles, the best performance is Matthew Rose as Claggart. He is I think the only Claggart I've heard live who had real heft left in the voice (I adored Richard Van Allan when I was first attending ENO but by the time he sang Claggart he was coming to the end of his career). He delivers the text with real point. From first to last it's a compelling singer-actor performance. Benedict Nelson is I fear not ready for Budd and I have to question the wisdom of those responsible for casting in asking him to do it and Nelson in accepting. It is fair to say that he delivers Billy's monologue when in the Darbies effectively, but of course the orchestral accompaniment there is minimal. Elsewhere, whenever the orchestral level swelled, Nelson tended to disappear underneath it, and the voice lacked that ringing heroic quality that the character badly needs – most notably when bidding farewell to the Rights o'Man. It is only fair to say though that he is also hampered by a production which is very bad at singling him out visually as he ought to be. Kim Begley was, of course, a substitution for Toby Spence as Vere. The part was also a problem in the otherwise excellent 2010 Glyndebourne production. Begley had some strong moments but too often there were cracks, strain, a sense of tightness in the sound when again the part needs to ring out. In essence those three voices need to match and tussle with each other as their characters do and when Vere and Budd are being vocally outclassed by Claggart you've got a problem.

The other big problem with the evening is David Alden's production. It isn't infuriating just largely ineffective. For one thing he seems to be afraid of the Chorus. That at least is my explanation for his unconvincing management of them. Only in the muster at the start of Act Two does he manage to craft a really effective stage picture. Elsewhere he leaves them milling about, pulling ropes unconvincingly, or banishes them from the stage at ludicrous moments – the most unfortunate one being prior to Billy's farewell to the Rights o'Man. Since there is virtually no one bar the officers on stage to hear it it makes ridiculous their concern that he might be trying to incite a mutiny and the moment is crucial for the unfolding of the drama. With the principals, Alden seems to be capable of little beyond putting them on platforms above the stage or having them wander about a bit – there is a nearly terminal lack of those crucial moments of tension between characters created by positioning and gesture in conjunction with music. The moment when Dansker stops Donald from starting a mutiny towards the end (that at least was how I read it) is powerfully moving partly because it is in such contrast to most of the rest of the movement.

Yet Gardner and his ensemble's delivery of the score packs real punch. And the score is one of Britten's greatest. I am advised that Glyndebourne are reviving Michael Grandage's excellent production next year but there are sufficient good things in this performance that I would advise those who cherish this work to see it all the same.

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