Britten’s Britain

Tom Sutcliffe on the ENO’s production of Britten’s Billy Budd

‘You see,’ says Miles in The Turn of the Screw, ‘I am bad.’ Actually, contrary to the popular notion that right and wrong are easily distinguished and that good and bad are like black and white, genuine moral recognition is far from plain sailing – especially in a naval opera like Britten’s extraordinary Billy Budd. The prologue and epilogue present Vere, captain of the Indomitable, ‘starry Vere’ beloved of the whole ship’s company, in an act of private confessional reminiscence leading finally to rather questionable self-absolution. At the end of his life Vere feels himself to be somehow redeemed by the mere fact of Billy’s beauty and existence. But why does he fail to save Billy? Is it because, like Master at Arms Claggart, he has fallen for the young press-ganged sailor and – when the court inevitably finds Budd guilty of striking Claggart – must silence his doubts to prevent his great affection for the lad from totally unbalancing his judgment?

Complex and fascinating

Claggart’s confession, declaring his determination to destroy Billy, is Britten’s most Verdian moment – an exact equivalent to Iago’s soliloquy in Otello ‘Credo in un dio crudel’. Matthew Rose is a compellingly brilliant immense Claggart, his richly coloured singing the most powerful of the whole cast, and he gives the most complex and fascinating picture of the role I have ever witnessed. Acknowledging to himself (and us) what he feels for Budd and concluding ‘Beauty’ has to be eradicated is the searing hellfire at the core of David Alden’s new English National Opera staging. Suddenly we see Claggart produce and smell the little red neckerchief which Budd was wearing when we saw him with the other press-ganged sailors in the opening scene. Floored by his guilt and lust he stretches himself luxuriantly lying on the stage floor for a moment.

But Alden has also a very strong Novice (Nicky Spence) to play with here, and it is Alden’s unerring direction of the scene where Claggart forces the Novice into his service and commissions him to encompass the destruction of Budd, that really sets this whole interpretation on the highest level. The Novice cowers down, gets pinned to the floor by Claggart, as the Master at Arms overtly suggests by the violence and sexuality of his manner the threat of rape and abuse if the Novice is not very cooperative, and perhaps even then. This is a riveting, shocking episode, but it rings utterly true.

Need for restraint

But Alden, save in this scene, touches on the opera’s homosexual subtext very subtly, as merely the context for the abuse of power. If only he, his set designer Paul Steinberg, and costume designer Constance Hoffman had been more restrained in their evocation of the lash which with rum and sodomy accounted for British naval discipline in the French revolutionary wars. What we see at ENO is the crude inside of a 1930s battleship staffed by officers and NCOs dressed in uniforms that mostly evoke the Nazis.

Of course all operas can be updated. But what is gained with Billy Budd in divorcing it from its very specific era? Alden’s Peter Grimes which is being revived next season at ENO often looks as if it had been designed by Otto Dix. It has become a cliché to use the Nazi era as a convenient shortcut to evoke ultimate wickedness. And Britten’s opera moves from the brutal welcome of the press-ganged few new members of the ship’s company to the warlike action stations with which the second half opens, clouded in mist that lets the Frenchy ship escape British justice! And Alden’s staging of this well-articulated scene of enthusiastic comradeship is all in the music and choral singing rather than in what we see – because naturally little of what Britten wanted to illustrate makes any sense in this physical context. Britten is not on the side of mutineers and traitors. Vere is a model of the good, as are most of the ordinary officers and men. In time of war you need tough discipline, and that structure is not automatically ‘as if’ Nazi.

Casting and conducting

Unfortunately ENO’s casting of young Benedict Nelson as Budd just does not work: his voice lacks the power and glow it requires, and he lacks the charisma and the intense lyricism called for in the Darbies scene before his execution which is also poorly staged. But the rest of the casting is very strong. Kim Begley is a marvellously cautious ambivalent intelligent Captain Vere. It is good to welcome back old ENO stars Jonathan Summers as Mr Redburn and Gwynne Howell as the experienced old seaman Dansker. The ENO should have an ensemble to do the job it is subsidized to do which is nurturing vocal and theatrical talent at all levels, and Howell and Summers date back to when it used to do its full job. Edward Gardner’s conducting was impressively full of light and shade – and air.

The pace was often gentle and telling. The ENO’s production is shared with the Bolshoi and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, so its visual clichés are a pity. But better than Richard Jones’s production which is coming from Frankfurt to Covent Garden, set on a very British 1940s training ship with Vere looking like King George VI and Claggart in a moustache wearing a brown tweed sports jacket, the picture of Mr Chips. We really do not use our operatic resources properly in Britain. ND