Billy Budd, English National Opera, London
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Tuesday 19 June 2012
The sight of Kim Begley's old and broken Captain Vere silently mouthing Billy Budd's death sentence as it is read out in the final scene of Britten's opera will be one of the enduring images of David Alden’s new English National Opera production.
It’s a terrible mantra that he will repeat over and over and over to the end of his days. “Long ago...many centuries ago”, he recalls. Time is indeterminate, the pain eternal. And as for Vere, so for Alden. 1797 is the date in the ship’s log - but the morality of Herman Melville’s tale is tied to human nature in perpetuity.
It’s hard to determine a precise period or indeed a clear naval identity for Alden’s staging in Paul Steinberg and Constance Hoffman’s designs. But the black leather greatcoats and dehumanising uniformity of the rank and file - each a number not an individual - has an ugly familiarity. And bringing the whole piece inescapably closer to us in terms of reference - most of it stylised and non-specific anyway - is Alden’s chosen way.
What really tells here is the physical expression, the precisely drilled blockings behaving like a testosterone-fueled ballet where ropes and oil drums (a clear reference to the prize in modern warfare) are sculpted metaphors and the belly of the ship can also act as a monstrous canon into whose barrel we gaze. Steinberg’s set dwarfs its inhabitants, bearing down on them, “containing” them. And is it coincidental that the rusted iron support beams of the mighty hull are fashioned like the Union flag?
But should you quibble (I don’t) with Alden’s decision to remove the piece from its specific time and place you could have no such qualms about the magnificence of the musical presentation. Edward Gardner inspires his fantastic chorus and orchestra to great heights, the surge and swell of Britten’s score as surely caught as its queasy undertow. Bright young stars emerge from the ensemble - Nicky Spence’s vivid Novice, shamed by fear, Duncan Rock’s wonderfully virile and “present” Donald - and experience shines through Gwynne Howell’s Dansker.
The apposition of good and evil, innocence and envy, achieves a startling tension between Benedict Nelson’s open and unforced Billy and Matthew Rose’s indomitably cruel Claggart, his lustful brutality obscenely suggested in the fondling of Billy’s neckerchief. And at the centre of the moral dilemma is Kim Begley’s Vere, the heroic timbre of the voice pointedly draining away in guilt and impotence.
A thrilling company achievement. World class.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 Michelle Obama highlights harsh restrictions faced by Saudi women after meeting King Salman without wearing a headscarf
- 3 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 4 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 5 Isis publicly behead man in Syrian town square for 'insulting Allah' as he screams for help
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Mike Tindall, Jodie Kidd and co take to the slopes
Game of Thrones: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' goes viral 35 years later
Our fascination with the Arctic from Greek myths to Sky Atlantic's new drama Fortitude
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures