First performed in 1951, Billy Budd is both a less complex and less memorable work than Benjamin Britten’s best known and most successful opera Peter Grimes. Based on the short novel by Herman Melville, the story concerns Claggart, Master-at-arms of the HMS Indomitable, who – in essence – has a thing for his younger shipmate Billy, but because he cannot admit to his own feelings he plots to destroy him. The plan goes wrong and the older seaman gets killed, and as a result, Billy is then hanged. But before he swings for his misdeeds the opera grinds along for nearly three hours, with a lot of scenes that feel like filler.
Britten’s musical language follows a kind of Goldilocks Principle, being neither too dissonant nor too consonant. It sits right in the middle. This lack of extremes in either direction results in a luke-warm, soupy musical style that can allude to emotion but rarely truly conveys outrage, heartache or passion. Conductor Edward Gardner draws as much from the orchestra as the score allows, and the performances of the large cast are uniformly committed.
Paul Steinberg’s austere, beautifully rusting, and monumentally looming sets, are striking without being overbearing. There was a bit of ‘cleverness’ in the use of white walls, white steps, white frame, white door, and so forth, (presumably representing Billy’s purity), but for the most part both the costumes and the set are attractive. Similarly, David Alden’s direction (he previously worked with Gardner on the 2009 ENO production of Peter Grimes) is simple, uncluttered and assured, foregrounding the narrative, but there’s a lack of clarity in one vital scene: the crew of the man-o’-war attempt to save Billy’s life through an act of mutiny, but the sheer force of protocol and procedure manages to weigh down their efforts and they allow Billy to die. This is an essential bit of action/inaction, but it wasn’t always clear on stage and might not have been obvious to those not already familiar with the opera.
Benedict Nelson sings with power as the plucky but simple-hearted Billy and there is some fine characterisation from Matthew Rose as villainous Claggart; their performances give the piece some real heart, but instead of focussing on Billy and Claggart’s relationship – to my mind the most interesting feature of Melville’s original story – Britten and E.M. Forster, who provided the libretto, seem to have been keener to provide maddeningly well-proportioned set-pieces (a duet here, a choral number there) in order to align Billy Budd with other full-tilt masterpieces, all of which certainly make it ‘grand’, but not ‘great’ opera.
The ENO’s massive all male ensemble is full of distinctive, individual performances which are all well-honed and convincing. The chorus are on pretty wonderful form too, roaring their shanties with surety and verve, breathing life into this all-too-prim and self-aware work.