Review: A vivid portrayal of moral ambiguity

Billy Budd

New Theatre, Cardiff

There is a nice irony about Welsh National Opera's staging their new in a co-production with Opera Australia and with an Australian producer (Neil Armfield), in the week Canberra voted to go anti-royalist.

Armfield and his designers - Brian Thomson, Carl Friedrich Oberle and Nigel Levings - construct a brilliant visual image of the floating republic of Captain Vere's imagination: a cramped, shapeless, directionless vessel shrouded in mist and darkness.

But they don't evade the underlying issue of Britten's drama, either. And that has to do with queens of a different pedigree, and another kind of rejection.

Psychologically, this is one of the strongest Budds I can recall, and that's particularly impressive because Nigel Robson stepped in as Vere only two weeks ago, replacing Robert Tear, who has laryngitis, for the Cardiff performances. Robson offers a beautifully concentrated portrait of the moral torment of wrong actions committed for fear of the motives for right ones. And similar praise is due to Phillip Ens for locating so precisely the sensual element in Claggart's need to destroy that love "that lives and grows strong where I cannot enter". His business with Billy's neckerchief, like that with the flower in Carmen, subtly illuminates a self-loathing character that can often seem unmotivated demonism.

But there are plenty of other respects in which Armfield hits off the ambivalence of this marvellous but elusive work. As pure stage management, the production is a virtuoso achievement - if made needlessly harder by overuse of the hydraulic revolve, which effectively supplies the physical levels of the action but is also apt to choreograph the orchestral interludes with aimless rotations.

The choral scenes are thrilling in a stagy, faintly showbiz kind of way, but this is Britten's way, too, and his dramaturgy owes almost as much to Gershwin as to Verdi. The WNO chorus - males only, of course - are in their element in this piece. Better ensemble singing and better company acting I've rarely heard or seen, even on this stage, where they have always been strengths.

Andrew Litton conducts a superbly integrated performance, with orchestral playing that is at once emphatic and refined.

Christopher Maltman's Billy, a hefty but radiant youth, is a real find - as Claggart observes: a vivid, ebullient stage presence, and true to his own description. "I can sing," he tells Claggart, and proves it in a "Darbies" song worthy of the Singer of the World lieder prizewinner. This Claggart can sing, too: no trace of the epicene in En's admirably focused bass, but a firm, vibrant lyric-dramatic projection, the crucial give-away for a character who is riddled with repressed sentiment.

The lesser castings - mainly from familiar strengths (notably David Barrell as Redburn, and John Harris as a surprisingly athletic Red Whiskers) - include some strong newcomers: Simon Thorpe as Donald, brilliantly alert in his "Samoa" round, Ivan Sharpe as the painfully victimised Novice, and Grant Dickson as a jolly-faced Dansker. But, visitors or locals, this is all very much WNO at its best.

Stephen Walsh

Details

For the New Theatre box office, call 01222 878889; for further WNO tour information, call 01222 464666.

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