12/03/2005 - and 5, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17 December 2005
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Timothy Robinson (Edward Fairfax Vere), Paul Napier-Burrows (First Mate), Andrew Tinkler (Second Mate), Pavlo Hunka (Mr Flint), Nicholas Folwell (Bosun), Toby Stafford-Allen (Donald), Andrew Rees (Maintop), James Edwards (Novice), Richard Coxon (Squeak), Ashley Holland (Mr Redburn), Chris Wilding (Lieutenant Radcliffe), John Tomlinson (John Claggart), Adrian Thompson (Red Whiskers), Geraint Hylton (Arthur Jones), Simon Keenly side (Billy Budd), William Berger (Novice’s friend), Gwynne Howell (Dansker)
Andrew Litton (conductor), Neil Armfield (director)
ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Neil Armfield’s production of Billy Budd was first performed in the UK in 1998 by Welsh National Opera. On tour in fairly small theatres, and in the New Theatre in Cardiff, the moving platform that represented the ship in both the concrete and the abstract filled the stage and seemed at times to threaten to crush the swarming sailors. The dramatic claustrophobia combined with a first-rate cast, which included Robert Tear as Vere, to overwhelmingly powerful effect. The stage at the Coliseum is much larger, the projected wave-like graphics cast more light around it and it is a different production in many ways. Andrew Litton, who had conducted the WNO performances, and the ENO orchestra delivered music of superb clarity and even wit, with Billy’s stammer emerging naturally from the symphonic web and many similar details. But the drama seemed to have been scaled up, made more operatic, to fill the Coliseum, and the rewards of the performance were more conventional, a lot of stirring music and pretty good singing, rather than the fine-tuned anxiety that Armfield seemed to find originally.
Nevertheless, the singers were generally excellent. Simon Keenlyside, although in purely objective terms at least ten years too old for the title role, conveyed Billy’s sweetness and good nature, as well as his physical appeal and pride in his craft, the singing actor’s courageous athleticism in character serving as a pretty good substitute for the topmastmanship that Melville admires and makes Billy’s peers admire. In spite of his highly intelligent approach to performance, Keenlyside is a wonderful Papageno as well, and his Billy was never remotely cerebral. There may have been moments in the great monologues before Billy’s death when Keenlyside erred on the side of detachment rather than risking gush, but Timothy Robinson’s Vere was rather more fragile than some, less apparently cultivated and more emotionally volatile. Robinson’s voice is still beautiful, though, except when he goes into Irish tenor mode, it has much less character than that of Peter Pears, who originated the role, or Tear, and Robinson doesn’t quite have the stage presence of Philip Langridge, the other great Vere of recent years, to compensate. But Robinson’s was still a substantial performance that might well mature, and he was as heartbreaking at the end as anyone: the silence after the music ended lasted at least half a minute.
The production was tipped over into something more like a Dickensian cartoon particularly by the performance and appearance of John Tomlinson as Claggart. Tomlinson and Keenlyside both took the same roles in the superb London Symphony Orchestra performance under Richard Hickox, but on stage seemed to have less depth. Perhaps it was because he had shaved off his beard, for the first time in living memory, and so looked strange to those in the audience who were used to him, or perhaps it was simply that his rock-solid singing didn’t quite have the complexity require for Claggart -- most of Tomlinson’s signature roles, Wotan, Gurnemanz, Ochs, have some kind of sentimental streak, whereas Claggart simply has a perverted relationship with the world. But everyone should have Tomlinson’s projection and diction.
The rest of the ensemble were well characterized, especially Gwynne Howell’s sympathetic Dansker (allowed a beard, presumably because of his age), and the chorus caught the powerful moods of the sea and war in the music.