Last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been let down by its concept, but now English National Opera reasserts its reputation as the ‘House of Benjamin Britten’ with this new production of Billy Budd. Three years ago director David Alden and conductor Edward Gardner had a triumph with Peter Grimes (catch it at the Proms on 24 August!) and here they repeat the magic with another of the composer’s most iconic works.
Set in 1797 on HMS Indomitable, the 1951 opera is an adaptation of a Herman Melville story and a study in how fear and paranoia alone can have the direst consequences. New conscript, Billy Budd, is ‘perfect’ (save for a fatal stammer), but this makes the Master-at-arms paranoid that he is a revolutionary, and directly leads to the latter’s death when Budd retaliates against the accusation.
Grounding the action in more recent times, Paul Steinberg’s set of curved walls detailing the interior and exterior of a hull, and Adam Silverman’s eerie lighting, capture the oppressive and claustrophobic nature of ship life. Amidst the excellent cast, Kim Begley’s Captain Vere stands out, existing in a half-light as he is racked with guilt in old age, and coming across as both fair-minded and troubled in his heyday. In the title role, Benedict Nelson does not always feel charismatic enough, although his character certainly grows over the evening. His voice, on the other hand, can be highly pleasing and nuanced, and he should become stronger as the run goes on. Matthew Rose is exceptional as a deep voiced, stern and yet flawed Master-at-arms, Darren Jeffery is magnificent as the Sailing Master, while Duncan Rock is a spirited and effective Donald.
The chorus is brilliantly overwhelming, its impact being aided by the sound being so focused and precise. Conductor Edward Gardner, whose expansive and yet detailed interpretation of Britten’s score is a wonder to behold, can take much of the credit for it being so.
Until 8 July (seven performances) with start times of 15.00, 18.00 or 19.00. Tickets: 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.
Photo: An oppressive setting and an overwhelming chorus. It’s all there in David Alden’s Billy Budd, © Henrietta Butler.