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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

    £14000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss