The real hero of Britten's Billy Budd is the orchestra. No disrespect to Simon Keenlyside, whose athletic, all-consuming portrayal of the title role is currently without peer, but the dark heart of this operatic masterpiece resides in the infinite and ever-changing orchestral seascape.
Britten ruled the waves alright. And the light he cast upon them said more about man and nature than words ever could. The sequence in which HMS Indomitable's Captain Vere relays the sentence of death to the hapless Budd has famously resonated across the decades since the opera's premiere in 1951. A succession of 35 common chords slowly shifting in scoring and dynamics and emotion convey the terrible burden that Vere is destined to carry with him to the grave and beyond.
Under conductor Andrew Litton, their force and gravity was overwhelming. Indeed, the thrilling intensity with which he and the ENO orchestra dispatched the entire score makes one hope that he was at least offered the job of music director when Paul Daniel resigned. He would have been a canny choice.
He certainly carried this London premiere of Neil Armfield's disappointing 1998 staging. One can only wonder why the decision was made to replace Tim Albery's rather better production with something so inferior. Brian Thomson's hydraulically powered quarter-deck looked decidedly feeble at the centre of the huge Coliseum stage. A series of man-moved walkways and Nigel Levings' unimaginative lighting only compounded the visual inadequacy. Simplicity is one thing, but Armfield's marshalling of bodies in the big set-pieces was hopelessly formulaic. Blocking by numbers.
Thank heavens for the ENO Chorus, swelling to a great golden E-flat major sunrise at the climax of the below-decks chorus "Blow her to Hilo" (here played out above), or the thrilling beating-to-quarters sequence when the enemy ship is sighted in act three. Litton really caught the muscularity and salty tang of these moments.
Armfield did have one or two of his own. He's better with intimacy than he is with ensemble. The flogging of the novice (James Edwards) made graphic the humiliation, the sailor led naked and bleeding from the punishment. And there was a telling symmetry in the haunting image of Captain Vere as an old man fingering the only remnant of Billy's existence - his red neckerchief - and the evil Master-at-arms Claggart doing likewise while plotting the boy's destruction.
The casting of these roles played wonderfully to their contrasts. Vere is something of a stretch for Timothy Robinson, but that in itself served well the streak of weakness in the character's idealism. He was very moving at the close of the opera - a tired, broken man with too many regrets for memories. John Tomlinson's Claggart was, by contrast, a hollow-eyed, black-voiced, almost parodic baddy dispensing fear like an embrace. In his chilling act two credo bilious bottom notes found an ugly kinship with Britten's lowering trombone. This musical denunciation of the power of good also betrays a longing on Britten's part. There's more than a hint of homoerotic envy about Claggart. He must destroy that which he desires, but can never have.
Simon Keenlyside's Billy plays to that terrible paradox. He really does inhabit the role, seemingly unaware of his physical attractions, his cat-like acrobatics conveying youth and enthusiasm and the desire only to please and serve. His visible embarrassment when he realises that he has wrongly assumed that Captain Vere has summoned him to offer the promotion he so craves is but one of many telling details in his performance. And never is there anything narcissistic about Keenlyside's singing. He always goes for honesty and emotional truth.
As does Britten and his librettists, EM Forster and Eric Crozier. One day their deeply disturbing and compassionate masterpiece will get the staging it deserves. In the meantime, go for the music and Andrew Litton's marvellous realisation of it.