The moment we've been waiting for

Billy Budd Royal Opera House
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If there is a single passage that puts beyond doubt the view that Billy Budd represents the pinnacle of Britten's dramatic art, it is that extraordinary transition into the final act. Captain Vere has condemned Billy against all his better judgement and, as he resolves to break the news to the prisoner himself, a succession of 35 common chords in the key of F - each differently scored in different dynamics - stretch to infinity like questions and responses. For the rest of his life, Vere will ponder them.

It's an inspirational musical metaphor that goes right to the heart of this marvellous opera; and, as if to underline it, Francesca Zambello, the director of Covent Garden's impressive new staging, has the aged Vere return in spirit to the scene of his former life to relive that terrible day: to offer Billy the hand of salvation, only to bear witness at his execution. All of which lends an even greater poignancy to Billy's cry of "Starry Vere, God bless you!" - because only at the end of a lifetime of doubt and self-recrimination will Vere truly understand what Billy symbolised for him: "the love that passeth understanding".

Zambello's great strength as a director is that she truly feels the dramatic pulse of a piece. She is strong and patient with Billy Budd: you have to be. The waiting and the watching is important here: so much of the drama runs deep in the subtext. But Zambello knows how and where to find a physical response to the music. She repeatedly conspires to find exciting ways of lifting Billy, the paragon of good in man, up where he belongs. There's a marvellous moment when the swelling chorus of sailors off-stage is counterpointed with an image of Billy at the prow, arms flung wide in a welcoming gesture to the infinite sea while, behind him, the evil Claggart and idealistic Vere complete the human triangle. In another, she has Billy "crucified" on the cross-mast like he's being measured for martyrdom.

She and her designer, Alison Chitty, strive simply to complement Britten's seascapes, not to compete with them. The visual information is all impressions: of mast and criss-crossed rigging caught in the fluorescent blue reflections and glare and long shadows of Alan John Burrett's clever lighting. In the pit, the amazing colour mixes are always arresting (not least for their extremities of register), catching the ear as they would the eye - vividly realised by Robert Spano's authoritative direction. Zambello and Chitty tantalise us with their imposing main deck, hinting at moving it, but not actually doing so until the thrilling call-to-arms, when it rears up laden with crew hungry for action: "This is our moment, the moment we've been waiting for." We all had. Quite a tableau.

Remarkably, the absence of female voices is never a problem in Billy Budd, such is the variety of Britten's vocal texture. The ensemble work was excellent here, chorus and principals well integrated into a believable "community". Of the protagonists, John Tomlinson's black-bassed Claggart harnessed the weathered, elemental quality of his current vocal state to great effect, though subtleties like the high mezza voce of his Iago- like creed were not really viable. Graham Clark's Vere was suffering a chest infection, but still transcended his small physical stature with authority and truthfulness. Caught between them, between the devil and the deep blue sea, Rodney Gilfry's Billy - blond and rangy, winning smile, almost too good to be true - was all he needed to be, the very model of Britten's homoerotic fancy. It isn't a special voice, but it's a good one, used here with real sensitivity.

As his body hangs, a fallen angel, the focus turns once again on the old and broken Vere. And there is hope in the bright, shining chord that climaxes his closing monologue. One last masterstroke: his final words trail away virtually unaccompanied. The rest is silence.

Edward Seckerson