With a history of performing and studying opera myself, I always find an ENO opening is an evening of spotting familiar friendly faces both on and off stage. Billy Budd was no exception with university friends and ex-music teachers sitting nearby in the audience and singing acquaintances in the cast.
The creative team from the award-winning production of Peter Grimes return to bring this new version of Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Billy Budd, to the Coliseum stage. It is a dark and moody show, which I felt lacked a clear vision and yet thanks to an exemplary cast of vocalists and musicians leaves a lasting impression.
Billy Budd is the second sea tale I have seen this season at the ENO after the spectacular rendition of The Flying Dutchman. This tragic opera is unique for its all male cast; the blokey chorus make quite an impact and there is something very refreshing about a narrative that is not based around a tumultuous girl-boy love affair. Billy Budd is a fiercely proud and strong sailor; aside from his occasional stammer, he is a strong member of the naval service and soon becomes a favourite of Captain Vere’s. But his inability to express himself coherently leads him to lash out and he receives the ultimate punishment for his violence.
I was most impressed by the standard of acting which is convincing across the board. In particular the contributions of Benedict Nelson as Budd and Gwynne Howell as the faithful Dansker make the production engaging and moving. Nelson makes a handsome and thoughtful Budd, though I felt he could have been more powerful vocally. Matthew Rose is a chilling Claggart, a British bass with a smooth and rich tone. The smaller roles are played by some stunning younger singers, Nicky Spence as Novice and Marcus Farnsworth as Novice’s Friend.
I found the staging a little unimaginative and I failed to understand the point of the stark set. The movement too is disappointing and I wondered what exactly the choreographer had worked on… aside from a bit of swaying the men seem to take part in very little activity.
One thing is for sure, Edward Gardner never fails to deliver and the orchestra truly do justice to this great modern British score, bringing energy and passion to the music.
Zooming down the Coliseum stairs, the ominous Britten melodies still circling in my head, a crew of cameramen caught me off guard for an interview and soundbite. Exhausted and in a daze, I hope I spoke coherently, I guess we’ll soon find out if and when the footage goes live!
Billy Budd is a Britten classic and this production shows off some of Britain’s best vocal talent.
Continues until 8 July, book here.