Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Billy Budd, ENO

It's difficult to know what ENO's new Billy Budd is really trying to achieve. This confusion - perhaps 'mist' is a more apposite word - is not helped by a good, solid, clean reading from a company working well under a newly honoured music director (Edward Gardner's OBE was announced at the weekend).

David Alden's production is a large-scale curiosity, notably through his designer Paul Steinberg. A non-specific updating might be taking us to the high-watermark of industrial merchant sea-going. Certainly the officers' costuming suggests early twentieth century. Yet the interior of the ship despite being dutifully holy-stoned at the curtain to the opera proper bears no overt suggestion of sea-going. It might as well be the Nostromo, Ridley Scott's merchant space-ship from Alien. The aesthetic may be focused on class divison - until we finally get to Vere's cabin, a half-pipe of 2001: A Space Odyssey cleanliness. I think one of this production's aims is to explore moral division, although it doesn't seem necessary to superimpose that on an opera whose principal purpose is to explore a moral drama in the first place.

Talking of doubling-up on reading, one of my out-and-out criticisms of this production would be the subversion of many key dramatic moments. Billy's first stammer, Claggart tripping over a cabin boy after having praised Billy's tackling of the feckless Sqeak all both concealed in a swirl of stage crossing. Such incidents cannot possibly be mistakes. I wonder whether they are the director's 'added-value' versions of formal dramatic interventions, coitus interruptions such as Claggart's first approach to Vere or the attempted shot failing to reach the French ship. Self-evidently this is unnecessary, so I'm left confused.

Billy Budd has the potential to be a good opera, since about many things without being anything in particular. It might be about war but it's more about the general pity of the moral traps through which all men wade during conflict. It's a well-balanced piece about the relationships between men, but not composed in order to investigate homosexuality - rather the honesty of the relationships between the men allow clear articulation of the moral problems. The vernacular is quite well-rendered, all the more confusing then for a non-specific updating.

At the centre of this production is a truly revelatory creation from Matthew Rose. This Claggart is not the Stygian, oak-voiced thug that imposing himself on the ship but an exquistely sung cipher of both the castrated Klingsor and the conflicted Kundry. Bringing him up out of a trapdoor in the centre of the ship is a commendably consistent coup in the production design. Having Dan Norman's brilliant-if-brief Sqeak as a perverted Ariel to this Prospero and some of the best singing coming from the already downtrodden (Nicky Spence's Novice and Marcus Farnsworth's Novice's Friend) is also consistent with the idea of Vere's internal monologue. Kim Begley is less well-served by the his rather didactic designs but the dessication of the prologue and epilogue are deeply affecting.

There's a lot to think about, I just wish I didn't have to do it because I felt something wasn't right. This may be a fault of the opera which, between moments of brilliance, is formally a little pre-packed but would benefit from support in a production rather than further conceptual stratification.

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