Billy Budd, ENO

Helen Wallace reviews a stark production of Britten's opera

Billy BuddPhoto: Henrietta Butler

Strip away the powdered wigs, gold buttons and all the picturesque paraphernalia of an 18th-century man-o’-war from Billy Budd, and you’re left with the stark reality of the Indomitable: this is a maritime killing machine incarcerating conscripts. David Alden’s uncompromising new production for ENO is brutal. The setting is 20th-century, the costumes suggesting the navy of a totalitarian state, the choreography rigorously militaristic. We never move above deck and feel the sea breeze, but remain locked in a claustrophobic hold; even Captain Vere’s cabin transforms into a monstrous cannon. But, as in his sometimes shocking recent Peter Grimes, this brutality is not imposed: the press-gang, the flogging, the spying and an atmosphere charged with paranoia are all there in Herman Melville’s original story.

Conductor Edward Gardner, once again, is star of the show: his orchestra seethes with a dangerous energy. He scours out the score for all its high-tensile menace, grinding harmonic ambivalence, its sawn-off chords, moments of glistening splendour and its restless rhythmic undertow. Just as Alden finds the universal in Britten, so Gardner has the ability to place this music in context. He brought a Stravinskian bark to the muster scene, and revealed Britten’s indebtedness to Bartók's Bluebeard’s Castle in the extraordinary ‘cabin’ sequence of chords. In fact, it’s hard to drag ones ears away from these compelling voices in the pit, who convey the opera’s narrative with such searing commitment that the soloists – almost - pale beside them.

Billy BuddPhoto: Henrietta Butler

Tenor Kim Begley’s portly, likeable Captain Vere dressed in Gadaffi gold and white seems somewhat out of place. While his radiant tenor carries him through to the troubled end, there’s something bland in his manner which jars: we get no sense of the visionary strategist, ‘Starry Vere’. He’s certainly no match for bass Matthew Rose’s superb, moon-faced Claggart, who rises up from his hell-hole in black leather, lustrous-voiced and brooding.

Alden clearly wants more lust in his confessional scene, in which he fondles Billy’s neckerchief, but he seems less than convinced, and manages to turn its climax into hammy melodrama (these 5 minutes struck me as entirely superfluous here). Dansker (bass Gwynne Howell), the Novice (tenor Nicky Spence), Donald (baritone Duncan Rock) all enliven the action, and baritone Benedict Nelson, playing Billy, brings radiant, open-faced optimism on to the stage, despite an underpowered vocal performance. While his final scene is touching, his voice lacked the colours, the resonance needed.

Last word must go to the vast male chorus who gave the whole production back its humanity. Alden might have frightened the horses in London, but this dystopian vision will have chilling resonance in its next two locations, Berlin and Moscow.

'Billy Budd' is on at ENO until 8 July.