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.