Atmosphere and drama - in the orchestra at least

Billy Budd | Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

"Don't like the French...Don't like their lingo...". Nothing changed there, then. What had changed is that if you didn't hear the line, you could read it. Royal Opera's current revival of Britten's Billy Budd has surtitles, which some will argue is an admission of defeat, and others, like myself, will say is long overdue. ENO should re-address the issue.

"Don't like the French...Don't like their lingo...". Nothing changed there, then. What had changed is that if you didn't hear the line, you could read it. Royal Opera's current revival of Britten's Billy Budd has surtitles, which some will argue is an admission of defeat, and others, like myself, will say is long overdue. ENO should re-address the issue.

Re-addressing Francesco Zambello's 1995 production of Billy Budd didn't require too much effort. It's a pretty rudimentary affair, an A to B of dramatic expression. Alison Chitty's quarterdeck looks, and is, very static until act two. As for the emblematic "double-cross" mast - that's too much of an invitation for Billy to perform his "crucifixion" pose early in the action.There's not much here in any sense.

Atmosphere and drama reside primarily in Britten's orchestra, in the high-trumpet and piccolo crested spray and deep rolling undertones of strings and drums and low brasses pulling the barlines out of shape. Conductor Richard Hickox's seafaring zeal was primarily all about sinew, and at times he could have run a tighter ship. Plenty of visceral impact, though, in the hollering shanties and act two's "call to quarters", the chorus (on good form) crammed above and below the prow of the ship as if we, the audience, were in its path. "This is our moment!", they cried. Just so.

Crew-wise, Simon Keenlyside's eponymous hero/victim shone, not least through his puppy-like physicality. His refusal to overplay any of the emotional subtext stood in marked contrast to Eric Halfvarson's bullet-headed Claggart who was simply too much the demon king for my liking. His credo, like Iago's, is the more menacing for its stillness and composure, but Halfarson's voice will no longer support, for instance, the high mezza voce declaration which is its chilling conclusion. As for Kim Begley's somewhat one-dimensional Vere, I fearTimothy Robinson's outstanding Novice had more charisma. A good idea of Zambello's, though, to have the aged Vere wander back into the final scenes as if searching for the second chance he never had. Of course, all he can do is literally turn his back on Billy's execution.

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