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Benjamin Britten Billy Budd English National Opera 8 December 2005

Timothy Robinson, Simon Keenlyside, John Tomlinson, Ashley Holland, Pavlo Hunka, Brindley Sherratt,Adrian Thompson, Toby Stafford-Allen,Gwynne Howell, James Edwards, Richard Coxon, Nicholas Folwell, Andrew Rees, William Berger

Director: Neil Armfield
Design: Brian Thomson
Lighting: Nigel Levings
Costumes: Carl Friedrich Oberle
Musical direction: Andrew Litton



Musically very strong, the staging of this new production has polarised opinion.*

Perhaps where you sit is critical? From Stalls Row F it was a duel between Brian Thomson's machine, which Neil Armfield had going up and down and round and round to little clear purpose and increasing irritation, and Andrew Litton with his superbly trained orchestra and singers the losers.

On stage, as strong a cast as you will find anywhere projected the text (to us) with about 90% audibility. Simon Keenlyside and John Tomlinson have been universally admired, though we thought the demonstration of the former's Tarzan-like gymnastics skills - pictured singing suspended upside-down - overdone.

Timothy Robinson's projection of Vere's equivocal captaincy may have grown since the first night? I found nothing lacking, having seen many productions including the first, in which the 34 "interview chords" were heard against the simple, unforgettable image of an empty stage with the closed door behind which the poignant unseen meeting took place. Now, there was no sense of 'place' and portentous dark cloud projections were a trivial distraction to one's meditation upon this equivocal music beyond words. Next the crudity of the little platform, upon which Billy was shackled for his last morning before it was unceremoniously wheeled away, diminished the poignancy of the final consoling meeting with Dansker.

This performance provided opportunities to savour analytically the detail of the score and its numerous cross references, but never before have we felt more uninvolved and less moved by this great and favourite tragic opera, in contrast to the feelings evoked and conveyed in my most recent reviews of Billy Budd, the DVD of Tim Alberry's ENO production of 1988 and the Zambello/Chitty version at Covent Garden 2000, when I reminded myself that " My libretto of Billy Budd dates from 1951, with yellowed cuttings from Radio Times pasted in - Covent Garden programmes were too expensive for students - to remind me that on 30 November 1951 I attended the Dress Rehearsal for the first performance, with the conductor, still "to be announced", proving to be the Composer himself !"

SF adds: From the Dress Circle the robot ship and its satellite stairways were less overwhelming but equally trying.
John Tomlinson's Claggart was firm and unrelenting with a good streak of barely-concealed malice, perfectly balanced by Gwynne Howell's mellow Dansker, but it was the depth of casting right down to the smallest role that really impressed.    James Edwards (the apprentice), William Berger (his friend), and Geraint Hylton (Arthur Jones) all caught my attention and are names to look out for.   The chorus, with twenty six additional singers drafted in, produced a magnificent wall of sound, reminding us that the crew of a British fighting ship was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

* - - the brilliantly deployed hydraulic platform perfectly evoking not only the different levels of the ship but the ever-present movement of the waters below. - - (Seen&Heard)

- - One can only wonder why the decision was made to replace Tim Albery's rather better production with something so inferior. Brian Thomson's hydraulically powered quarter-deck looked decidedly feeble at the centre of the huge Coliseum stage. A series of man-moved walkways and Nigel Levings' unimaginative lighting only compounded the visual inadequacy. - -
(The Independent)

(photos: English National Opera / Clive Barda)

© Peter Grahame Woolf