ENO last did Billy Budd in 2005, in a dramatic but unlovely production by Neil Armfeld which was borrowed from WNO; this had replaced Tim Albery's notable production. Showing either that the company is keen to do well by Britten's harrowing opera, or that they are being a little profligate with productions. This latest outing, directed by David Alden, conformed to Alden's rigorously stylised aesthetic. Designed by Paul Steinberg with costumes by Constance Hoffman, it seemed to be set on a mid-20th century vessel, probably an Eastern Bloc one, the whole atmosphere was one of control and repression.
The officers all wore leather coats, to a rather startling Nazi effect, and control was effected via a group of military police with batons. We never saw the sea, the nearest we got was the smoke and mist drifting around at the opening to act 2, all the action took place in a firmly industrial looking environment. By contrast, the Captain's cabin was pure white, perhaps it was meant to be futuristic, but the result rather looked like a 70's shoe shop emptied of shoes. As if to emphasise the struggle between good and evil which the opera embodies, Captain Vere (Kim Begley) was all in white and Claggart (Matthew Rose) always appeared from underground, via a hole in the stage.
The atmosphere was in no way homo-erotic, not even very homo-social. Matthew Rose was a severely repressed and repressive figure, under iron control all the time and you got no glimmer of attraction between him and Billy Budd (Benedict Nelson). Rose's solo at the end of act 1, where he almost makes love to Budd's neckerchief rather came out of nowhere, we could have done with some spark between the two. Rose did well with Alden's conception of Claggart. But though he was fearsome, his behaviour was so unremittingly bleak that it rather had a negative effect. Also, on this ship the whole environment was so iron controlled, that Claggart's behaviour did not seem out of place. Alden seemed to be giving us a picture of a whole fractured society.
This stretched as far as Billy, who was in no way the dominating figure in the first three quarters of the opera. Benedict Nelson is a personable looking young man, but Alden gave him neither the stage beauty nor the arresting position in the drama that is usual for Billy. This Billy was not a cynosure for all eyes, he was simply one of the blokes. You almost felt that Claggart could have picked on anyone, and probably would have. It did not help that, Edward Gardner's brilliant, high-octane account of the score meant that there were moments when Nelson's voice did not dominate in the way that it should.
Kim Begley's Captain Vere was notable for the way the Begley managed to convey the character's two different ages. The old Vere of the prologue and epilogue and the younger one; Begley embodied both of these and gave a towering performance which came over as rather more self-serving and less agonised than usual. This was combined with a very fine vocal performance indeed; Begley's voice has significant heft, which is an advantage in this role, but he combines it with a fine sense of line and intelligent flexibility. We don't seem to see enough of him in London.
I have to confess that until the trial scene, I was in two minds about the production. Set pieces like the battle scene which opened act 2, were stunningly done; though even here it was more by musical than dramatic means. The stage action for the battle was extremely static and relied on the powerful performance from the chorus and by bringing the drums into the auditorium to terrific effect.
But apart from this, the production was curiously uninvolving. We weren't given enough reason to care for Billy and the society of the ship was so repressed that it offered little scope for hope or for the interesting grey margins of drama. Billy's felling of Claggart seemed particularly unconvincing. But with the trial, Alden seemed to move the drama to another level. The three officers, Mr Flint (Darren Jeffery), Mr Redburn (Jonathan Summers) Lieutenant Ratcliffe (Henry Waddington) managed to convey both the officer's iron control and their underlying fallibility. Begly was particularly implacable in this scene, making Vere rather more unlovely than usual. Suddenly we had some real, personal drama.
This continued with the Billy in the Darbies scene, where Nelson was perched up high in the metal superstructure and was profoundly touching in this scene. It made me want to see him again in this role, in a more sympathetic production.
For Billy's death, Vere abdicated all responsibility; we saw him not as the young Captain Vere of the Indomitable but as the old, tortured old man. The final scene, with the bowed down crew still looking one, was rather less redemptive than usual. You felt, from this production, that Alden must have a very bleak view of human nature.
The smaller roles were all well cast. Gwynne Howell repeated his very human Dansker, Nicky Spence was a very fallible Novice, with Daniel Norman as Squeak and Marcus Farnsworth as the Novice's friend.
Both chorus and orchestra were on thrilling form, under Edward Gardner's direction; musically this was a stunning performance with a hard dramatic edge which gripped you from the word go. The orchestral interludes were simply done with the curtain down, giving us no distractions from the very real drama happening in the orchestra.
As with the recent Midsummer Night's Dream here, this was an interesting and arresting view of the work, but not necessary one that I would want to live with.