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?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • 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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before