Britten – Billy Budd

ENO, Coliseum, London, Saturday December 3 2005

Conductor: Andrew Litton. Production: Neil Armfield. Billy Budd: Simon Keenlyside. Captain Vere: Timothy Robinson. Claggart: John Tomlinson. Mr Redburn: Ashley Holland. Mr Flint: Pavlo Hunka. Lieutenant Ratcliffe: [replacement]. Red Whiskers: Adrian Thompson. Donald: Toby Stafford-Allen. Dansker: Gwynne Howell. Novice: James Edwards. Squeak: Richard Coxon. Bosun: Nicholas Folwell. Maintop: Andrew Rees. The Novice’s Friend: William Berger.

It’s rare, in the hybrid, haphazard world of opera, to enjoy a vocally perfect performance: not for nothing are the very famous very famous, and we only get to hear them from time to time. It’s rarer still to have the privilege of witnessing the absolute possession of a role, both vocally and dramatically, to a near superhuman degree; performances that leave an audience in stunned silence, “drained” as the expression goes. I think of Arleen Auger as Alcina, Anja Silja as Kostelnicka….

That is the stage that Simon Keenlyside has reached with Billy Budd. Apparently he has suggested he’s getting too old for it, but there was no sign of that last Saturday at the Coliseum. His vocal range is astounding: not so much in the sense of tessitura – of course he has all the notes from top to bottom with no hint of difficulty – but in that of range of expression, from full baritone (and what a marvellous, complex sound it is, in the way that a wine may be complex) to a quiet quasi parlando so natural it’s almost laddish.

Laddish, too, his performance, bouncing off the walls like a youth who’s had his first kiss; racing up ladders and down stairs and dangling under girders without a note lost or a word unheard (the diction throughout this performance was excellent: even the chorus was comprehensible), rocking nervously from foot to foot, shaking his head in wild disbelief when accused and generally looking 15 years younger than anyone else on stage. He was, simply, mesmerising: this was music theatre as good as opera can possibly get.

John Tomlinson was, of course, no slouch as the dreadful Claggart, deep, cavernous and menacing despite the Uncle Fester make-up. This was Keenlyside’s show first, but, second, that of the Billy-Claggart tandem.

Timothy Robinson’s Vere, to me, lacked the charisma required to make it that of the full trio; and though he sang what he was best able to sing – quiet, lyrical passages in the medium and upper-medium – very well, to my ear (and not only mine) he was at times in serious difficulty at the top (I thought his voice would give out), demonstrating what a hard part this actually is.

The supporting parts were adequate – I would not quite say, as one London critic did, they were all “cast from strength” – Gwynne Howell acted a likeable enough Dansker but was barely audible in the vast Coliseum.

Orchestra and chorus made a big, hair-raising noise when required to, but there were trumpet quacks and I don’t think the ENO orchestra was quite as virtuoso as the next day’s reviews would have it.

The production was sober and handsome, in shades of black, dark grey, navy blue, cream and white, dramatically lit (often by spots placed in the pit, casting tall shadows at the rear of the stage). Costumes were period and the naval uniforms were well cut, but the staging was otherwise stylised.

It opened with a vast, dark grey tarpaulin draped over what seemed to be a large rectangular slab in the middle of the empty, black stage. Eventually, when the sailors had “heaved away” at imaginary ropes, this became a backdrop of sooty, menacing storm clouds in the style of an old engraving. Sometimes skies were projected on it. And the slab turned out to be a hydraulically-operated platform that could turn, remote-controlled, and be raised at either end or both to make a sloping deck or, during the battle, a high, gently rocking one with the officers above and the sailors below, eager to board.

The other props were metal staircases and a long, rather supple ladder that sometimes dropped down from the flies (and that Keenlyside raced up and down and clung to in the most alarming way, right side and wrong), and chairs and tables arranged as needed on the deck. It was simple and coherent and effective, and no-one paid any attention to the odd boo for the production team at the end.

As for Keenlyside, not only is he a great performer but a modest one too. A roar went up when he at last appeared for his bow, but he bowed only once, quickly, then stepped back to join hands with the rest of the cast and bring them forward to share the glory with him.

A very fine evening indeed.

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