Like pea-soupers, probity and politeness, the "powerhouse" era at English National Opera has acquired the patina of ancient history. For those who came late to opera, the Stevie Smith-style resignation of artistic director Sean Doran is but the latest disaster in what has been a dismal half-decade for an organisation whose anthropophagy is rivalled only by the Conservative Party. Yet still the shows go on, some of them - such as Neil Armfield's 1998 Opera Australia/Welsh National Opera production of Billy Budd - very good indeed.
With its luxuriant undertow of homo-eroticism, its brutal sadism, its all-male cast, and, in designer Brian Thomson's hydraulic abstraction of HMS Indomitable, its giant Meccano set, Billy Budd is a boys-only opera. Whether Melville intended his story to be a metaphor for suppressed sexuality or not, Britten's voyeuristic tragedy is as far out of the closet as you can get without having packed up the closet and taken it down to the Salvation Army. The character of Billy shares the blithe, passive beauty of Snow White and the exquisite martyrdom of an early saint. The opulence of his suffering goes beyond anything imagined by Puccini, Strauss or Janacek. Yet Billy Budd is also one of Britten's most perfectly constructed scores: a smooth arc of reflection, action, social unrest, dry-mouthed desire, and elemental violence.
Tempting as it is to attribute the excellence of this production to Blitz spirit, a more prosaic explanation for ENO's success with Billy Budd is the uniformly high standard of casting, direction and conducting. Save for a few imbalances during the Sea Shanties, Andrew Litton's command of the score is faultless. The sea-hues of greens and blues are beautifully separated, the choruses subtly shaped, the dynamics minutely intensified and relaxed. During the second performance, I realised that I had heard this orchestra play well before but had never thought them to have a lovely sound. In Billy Budd, they do.
If the accompaniment is exceptional and the movement well-drilled, so too is the singing. Though Simon Keenlyside (Billy) is too complex a performer - and perhaps now too mature - to convince me that he is the sweet innocent of Melville's imagining, his physical and vocal artistry are stunning. John Tomlinson (Claggart) is a similarly charismatic presence but his apoplectic bluster undermines the more seductive aspects of Claggart's character and his make-up is reminiscent of a rabbit in a shampoo laboratory.
More emotionally affecting are Timothy Robinson's eloquent, impotent Captain Vere, Gwynne Howell's grave Dansker, Toby Stafford-Allen's hearty Donald, and Adrian Thompson's agile Red Whiskers. The remainder of the ensemble - too numerous for individual credit - sing and act well, as do the ENO chorus. That not one word of E M Forster and Eric Crozier's libretto was lost may say something about the cast's superlative diction. Then again, it might just prove that singing opera in English is easier when the opera was written to be sung in that language.
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