Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Das Budd

July 04, 2012

Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd Photo: Henrietta Butler/ENO 2012
There are so many beautiful things about the operas of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps my favorite is the inherent ambiguity. The things that are assumed and acted upon by the characters in his stories without them ever being explicitly stated. I know more than a few opera fans who dislike his operas for this very reason – particularly when it comes to male homosexuality. The idea being that the undercurrents of unspoken male desire, or the stand-in conflicts that are sometimes meant to be thinly veiled storylines about the destructive effects of homophobia, strike some of these folks as timid and passé. And yet, I doubt that any of these folks would be much more pleased with the manner in which director David Alden has chosen to deal with these finer points of subtlety in the new production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is wrapping up its run at English National Opera this week and which I saw on Tuesday.

Actually the performance, conducted by ENO’s musical director Edward Gardner, doesn’t so much deal with fragile emotional ambiguity as do away with it almost entirely. In fact it pretty much does away with the sea and the boat of Melville’s original entirely. Outside of the scenes in Captain Vere’s quarters, all of the action takes place in front of or on one of two giant steel hull walls. The Indomitable may be at sea, but if it is there, it’s as a mid-20th Century German U-Boat. The residents of this submarine are dressed for the occasion as well with all the stocky, bearded officers in enough black leather boots, caps, and floor length trench coats to take one back to L.A.’s Faultline on a Saturday night. But this isn’t just about décor, it’s about Alden’s need to amp up the show by treating Claggart and his henchmen in particular as more clearly the arm of some fascist military repressive force complete with billy clubs to beat back the ship’s crew. Claggart himself, sung by the vocally lovely Matthew Rose, never stops walking in this production, pacing slowly in broad, right angle sweeps often away from the action and other characters he is supposedly interacting with like some uninvolved sentry. Claggart’s aria, “Handsomely done…” is staged like some melodramatic Hollywood mad scene where he mangles a floor mat. It’s almost as strangely wrong minded as the decision to play the Novice, here sung by Nicky Spence, as a man driven mad under Claggart’s harassment. And if all of this doesn’t beat the obvious into you, you can always put Vere in all white and Claggart and all the rest of the officers in black. Subtlety, thy name is not David Alden.

In the moments I wasn’t trying to figure out what the huge glossy black barrels the crew were moving around were doing on this man of war, I did find time to admire some of the musical performance. Edward Gardner continues to provide exciting musical direction, and his leadership of the orchestra this evening was fully realized, digging in with the players for some thrilling scenes. The chorus, always a key element to a Britten opera, was fabulous as well. Alden’s production served one good end here by using the large curved reflective surfaces to reflect the sound out into the auditorium. I rather liked Benedict Nelson in the title role. He wasn’t as large voiced or warm perhaps as you might like, but he was convincing with a young spirited energy. Kim Begley sang Captain Vere and, though he sounded somewhat unsteady to me when he was most exposed in the intro and the conclusion, he fit in well with the cast and proved a plausible, flawed leader struggling with regrets. He, like all involved parties, used the rather minimal set to maximum effect, but they really did deserve a bit better here. It’s not so much the modern updating of the show or even the change of setting that is so much of a problem, it’s more the desire to stamp out the tender ambiguities and conflicts in Britten’s opera that sinks this Indomitable. Billy Budd continues through July 8 at ENO.

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