David Alden’s new staging of Billy Budd
for ENO is the company’s third. Tim Albery directed an evocative yet daring
production in the early 90s, whilst Neil Armfield re-staged his WNO mise en
scene at the Coliseum in 2005 with a starry cast including Simon Keenlyside in
the title role and John Tomlinson as Claggart. With Andrew Litton in the pit,
the overall effect was shattering. David Alden is one of the most exciting
opera directors at large. His staging of Un Ballo in maschera
in 1990 changed the way I thought about opera and this was followed by
groundbreaking stagings of Tristan and Isolde,
Ariodante, Jenufa and Peter Grimes which
remains for me the most perfect opera staging it’s ever been my privilege to witness.
Expectations therefore ran high for his first
staging of Billy Budd as it reunited the same production
team that had triumphed with Peter Grimes and ENO’s music
director, Ed Gardner. They say lightning never strikes twice, but nothing could
have prepared me for the sense of despair I felt at the end of this lifeless and dreary
take on Britten’s sea-faring opera. Indeed the only things at sea were the
concept, execution and much of the singing.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but designer Paul
Steinberg’s monochrome sets , which
nominally look like the interior of a tanker and allow for no outside space,
are made up of greys, rust oranges and a brilliantly white sterile cabin for
Captain Vere consign all the action to below decks. Tiring on the eye, they
give little sense of place or atmosphere, nor do Constance Hoffman’s non-descript
costumes give much delineation of character. Adam Silverman’s lighting casts
portentous shadows now and again, but there’s little, if any, variety. Alden
seems to be on autopilot for most of the time as chorus blockings are clumsy
and there’s precious little interaction amongst the characters.
The singers therefore have an uphill struggle, and
maybe if the cast had been as starry as in 2005, the production’s shortcomings
would have been less noticeable, but alas few of the singers are up to the
challenge. Benedict Nelson is a fine young singer but is no way near ready for
the title role. At times he struggles to make himself heard, but when he does
the sound is not particularly special or individual, and he doesn’t possess the
kind of magnetic stage presence that the role calls for, which leaves a vacuum
at the centre of the work. His unsuitability to the part is exacerbated by
casting the physically and vocally imposing Duncan Rock as Donald, who gives
the most rounded performance of the evening. Here is a singer to watch as not
only is he a striking stage presence, but he possesses a wonderfully rich
baritone voice, that is plainly destined for greatness.
It’s good to see ENO stalwart Gwynne Howell
repeating his benign and worldly-wise Dansker whilst Nicky Spence just about
manages to overcome his Benny Hill-like appearance to bring pathos to the role
of Novice. Michael Colvin similarly makes his mark as Red Whiskers but you need
someone with an oily-black voice as Claggart, which Matthew Rose doesn’t
possess. Kim Begley, a late replacement as Vere, fails to make his mark as he
comes across as too one-dimensional.
Hero of the hour is conductor Ed Gardner who
conducts a thrilling account of the work, beautifully paced and for the most
part impeccably played from an orchestra on good form. The augmented chorus
makes a mighty noise when required.
Overall though, given Alden’s track record, this is
a bitterly disappointing evening.