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Billy Budd, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Billy Budd, English National Opera

Billy Budd, English National Opera

How to make Britten's great opera a bloodless bore: junk the context and get the cast wrong

A bland Soviet-style factory space with not a whiff of saltImages © Henrietta Butler/ENO

It should be hard to make Britten’s Billy Budd a bloodless, passionless, contextless bore, shouldn’t it? This is after all a lacerating story about men behaving badly on a fighting ship in the 1797 wars between Britain and Revolutionary France, a story where a man of great viciousness meets a man of much havering and a decent, possibly extraordinary lad loses his life.

And yet it’s what David Alden and English National Opera have achieved with this new production. Re-uniting the team who produced a hotly argued-about Peter Grimes in 2009, this has even more the sense of a disconnection between pit and stage, with an electric orchestral performance under Edward Gardner that’s negated again and again by a production that actually manages to make Billy Budd a bore.

The one unmitigated good thing is the conductor, driving Britten's great score like a master and commander on his ship - indeed, like the Vere we should be seeing on stage. But the setting built by Paul Steinberg refutes any sense of forward motion or 18th-century history, channelling a different, over-familiar revolution with a blank Soviet-looking factory space furnished with two industrial walls that winch up and down, and no need for sea legs. The crew of the Indomitable are garbed like garage mechanics in grey overalls and caps, and Captain Vere is a tubby inaction man in a tinpot dictator's white suit, only some braid on the cuffs hinting at naval uniform. His office is a stark white planked tube, and the entire place is conventionally anonymous, empty, not just devoid of humanity, devoid of signs of human usage or purpose.

vere's office in billy buddNow, were this devised to summon up the claustrophobia of a submarine or a space-ship, I’d happily project my imagination into it, but its laziness, its arrogance, its lack of relish for the material, interferes. There is no suggestion of sea or momentum, no elemental instability or ephemeral morality, not even much obvious work for the men to do apart from haul a few very clean ropes. Why should we have to work harder to imagine the story’s setting than the designer and director have?

Within this soulless place, it hardly seems likely that Billy Budd, the new pressganged recruit, would be allowed to flourish his curly, uncut locks without a cap, unlike all the other crew. Nor does it add anything helpful that clear stage directions in the libretto are often and obviously negated: Billy is told by another man to shush and not wake his mates - yet there’s nobody else there. The court martial agrees to “rise” when the officers are already striding about the room. Claggart insists on a beaten man crawling to him, but then himself wanders up to him so he doesn't need to move.

The effect of silly contradictions like this is constantly to dissipate any invocation of the tight, menacing atmosphere of the Indomitable, the rough magic of being at sea, and the pressure-cooker war conditions that mould its characters and their common tragedy.

Claggart, the master-at-arms, is vile because he has utter contempt for his life, and he hates anything that reminds him there are alternatives - hence his loathing of good, easy-going Billy Budd. Praise be for Matthew Rose, the pasty-faced nasty who was last night the saving grace of the leading roles, a big bullying closet gay who clutched Billy’s red neckerchief to his groin as he growled his confession to the night, “Handsomely done...” Rose is a perceptive actor with a richly expressive bass voice, and conveyed his malignant character (a Iago, if you like) with a still concentration in his body and sudden, arresting contortions of his mouth. The performance of the night.

benedict nelson as billyFrustratingly, no such interest in either Kim Begley’s Captain Vere or Benedict Nelson’s Billy. Begley replaced the originally intended Toby Spence (currently battling illness), and I wondered whether it was he or Alden who determined that Vere should come across as a minor civic dignitary rather than any kind of action hero. What on earth is there in this doughy, passive bureaucrat that makes men on a warship throw up their hats and cry “Starry Vere!” With such a narrow tenor timbre and a stolid lack of identification with what Vere actually says, Begley seemed to me at sea in a role that's wrong for him.

Surely Billy needs to be a person who helplessly attracts others’ resentment or desire

Nelson too (pictured above) delivered a generic Billy without much edge, ordinary, pacific and impossible to dislike. The stutter wasn’t believable, from his reading, as a symptom of some unpredictable inner strain, and his lash at Claggart wouldn’t have felled a chicken. Surely Billy needs to be a young Adonis, or a Jesus Christ, or a Lennie Small - a person who helplessly attracts others’ resentment or desire. Between them, Begley and Nelson made little of the pivotal emotional stand-off where Vere shamefully sanctions Billy’s execution.

Much of this gutlessness has to be put down to Alden’s static, slow-motion directing of a stageful of well-fed men few of whom act as if capable of strenuous physical exertion. Their symbolic dragging of ropes or bundles is awkwardly braked, with no weight in the movement; their slo-mo marching exposes that most of them have no idea why they’re doing it (the body cannot lie).

Good work from Nicky Spence as the Novice (but again poor directing - so easy a recovery after his flogging?), Gwynne Howell’s resonant Dansker, and Jonathan Summers’ authoritative, upright Redburn. But how to understand what common cause Gardner and Alden agreed in this broken-backed and unrewarding production?

The conductor drives Britten's great score like a master and commander on his ship - indeed, like the Vere we should be seeing on stage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Sadly I have to agree. It was a lazy and overwhelmingly dull production which failed to understand the opera nearly as spectacularly badly as the misconceived Midsummer Night's Dream production did (another case where the world of the orchestra and that of the production were light years apart). The Billy failed to deliver (how can you make the scene in the darbies so unmoving?) whereas Matthew Rose was outstanding. The muster scene as a sort of fascist rally was lazy and little of what was sung of was reflected in what was happening on stage. "The mist is clearing",,, actually, no. Glyndebourne showed just how to do it in 2010 as did ENO back in the days of Allen and Langridge.

Musically nearly outstanding - though Budd himself sadly very underpowered. Production just unspeakably peverse rubbish. So many wasted opportunities it made the whole thing annoying and boring to watch. The one exception was Matthew Rose's laugh, making Budd's explosion quite believable for once.

I couldn't agree with this review more. Outstanding singing, terrible production. Felt the same way about 2011 Midsummer Night's Dream.

Billy Budd? More like Billy Boredom! What a waste of time & money. Having been thoroughly disappointed by the first half we decided to stick it out in case things improved. Sadly, they didn't. The whole thing lacked pace and any sense of tension. The set could have been so much more imaginitive. I struggled to stay awake for much of the second half and thoroughly regret not leaving during the interval. On the positive side, the orchestra was good. Give me Glyndebourne any day.

We thoroughly enjoyed this production - music, singing, staging, costumes, thinking and all. The production was not about star turns and underplayed the homo-erotic stuff to make it much more moving and all-embracing about the human condition. Read the Standard, not something I usually recommend, for a much less vicious and thoughtful review - and go to see it while you can

The Evening Standard's review is way off the mark - Ismene's is spot on and not in any way vicious. ENO's new staging is ghastly, lame and tedious in the extreme. It is also woefully undercast in most of the main roles, most glaring was Benedict Nelson's totally inadequate stage presence and singing of the title role. It was pervese that the most natural singer for the title role, Duncan Rock, was singing Donald, yet exuded all the necessary attributes that Nelson was lacking in. The anonymous poster may not have seen the previous staging with John Tomlinson as Claggart and Simon Keenlyside as Billy Budd. If they had, like I did, they may have realised how overparted both Matthew Rose and Nelson were. Thank God for Ed Gardner's thrilling conducting - otherwise this staging would be a total right off.

Independent 5*, Times 4*, Guardian 4*, Evening Standard 4*. The production was challenging in that it deliberately removed the piece from its very specific context. Personally I found this shed new light on the piece as did several reviewers. But whether one liked the production context or not, boring it definitely was not. This was a thrilling evening which went by in a flash.

I'm sorry Richard, but it was far from challenging. It was lazy, and as Ismene says: boring. And it won't be the first time that the critics from the dailies have got it wrong. Ed Seckerson hailed 'Two Boys' as a masterpiece. 'Nuff said. The conducting, playing and choral singing was indeed thrilling but Alden, who until now in my book hasn't put a foot wrong, failed at almost every turn and the singing was simply not up to scratch. But it's good, in the immortal words of Mrs Merton, that we're having a 'heated' debate about it. But at the end of the day the staging fell well short of the mark and turned Britten's masterpiece into a snooze-fest, which in my book is unforgivable.

I am sorry but since lazy seems to be a favourite word, I will use it too. It is lazy indeed to dismiss the views of critics such as Rupert Christiansen and Richard Morrison by quoting Ed Seckerson's views on "Two Boys". The critical views of that piece were very divided. And indeed because the ENO sticks its neck out and takes risks, not everything it does will have equal appeal to everyone in the audience or amongst the critics. But even if you hate the production, it is simply unimaginable to me that with such thrilling conducting, as you acknowledge, you could find this wonderful work a "snooze-fest"

Richard, it depends how important to the pathos of Billy Budd you find the idea of personal responsibility and freedom to choose. What I find lazy is that by setting the context as that catch-all cliché, a grim dystopia, it lightens the personal responsibility for the men's decisions. The tragedy of the Billy Budd story is, to my mind, a human one, not a social one - because even in good causes and good societies, people choose of their own free will to make decisions which they may regret even as they make them, since they know they need not have made that choice. The pain of being Vere should strike home to every one of us, it's not something that just comes from a "bad" set-up. (No more should we be lazy enough to judge people's actions in "bad" societies as always bad. They still deserve to be judged on their intention, without prejudice.) Ismene

Well, of course, there is no "right" view. Everyone will have their own response. What I object to is the absolutism of many commentators. I was merely pointing out that many people in the audience, including me, and, as it happens, the majority of the mainline critics (who are experienced but not necessarilly any more "right") found this a great evening at the opera. Many of us also found great pathos in the human position of Billy and indeed the pain of Vere. I do not understand your point on how changing the setting altered the choice facing Vere. The rules were clear, Billy must hang. But he knew that since he was the only witness, he could have saved Budd. This had nothing to do with a "bad" context.

Another vote in favour of Ismene's review. I was very curious to see this production in view of the controvasy above but, for me this is ENO's third Britten dud in a row, so sad considering their Death in Venice, Rape of Lucretia, Turn of the Screw &, indeed, the previous Dream. Wilfully ignoring what's in the score yet again and perverse casting.

For me the best aspects of this my first ever Billy Budd were the Orchestra, the Chorus and Matthew Rose's Claggart. It's strange that both with Budd and the previous Dream the homosexual undertones were kept telepathic and hardly visualised; one wonders if there is a need to underplay the whole gay subtext for fear of... of what? I know ENO's remit is to be innovative. I loved their recent Peter Grimes but I won't be going to see the Budd or the Dream again. Speaking of innovation; the tragedy with ENO is that despite being brilliantly staged their Carmen by Sally Potter will probably never be revived because the critics panned it; yet for me it was one of the most refreshing and insightful stagings of Carmen ever and I've seen a few.

I have just returned home from the Sunday matinee and, as always, read the reviews on the Internet after the event. Ismene Brown is spot on. The orchestra and conductor were the stars of this performance. The incongruity between what one heard and what one saw were an insult which destroyed any credibility. Another of the many serious flaws is that Billy should be kept in solitary confinement until he is brought on deck before the assembled ship's company. But he was on stage all the time after his solo which he had to sing like a puppet perched on a ridiculous shelf. How sad that ENO could not engage a director who could have done justice to this great work.

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