S&H Opera Review

BRITTEN BILLY BUDD Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 20 September 2000 (PGW)

The house was less than full for this revival of Billy Budd in the Zambello production, with Alison Chitty's serviceable designs, first given in Geneva 1994.

Seen once again, some new thoughts came to mind about this deftly constructed & well honed 'tragedy', which plays upon many underlying feelings in us all, in a manner which can raise concerns about exploitation. The sexual hothouse of a confined, all-male society, with rulers and ruled imprisoned together by custom and regulations, and locked in sadistic-masochistic relationships, is shown with an emphasis on cruelty and intimidation. Did Billy's hugging his captain compound Vere's denials, rule out mitigating considerations, and seal his fate irrevocably?

Can an accusation of calculated voyeurism be excluded? Why are such very small boy children on board this ship? Gratuitous brutal beatings are continual; the flogged novice becomes a pivot of the story; the hanging is centre stage and the 'body' dangles over the last scene.

Benjamin Britten, Eric Crozier & E.M.Forster working on the libretto 1949

Yet, due to the skills of the original team of creators, and those involved in this revival, it works again, the screw turned unerringly by Britten's unique sea-salted score, which rivets the attention and almost makes us forget that we are watching a theatrical entertainment. Protagonists, chorus and orchestra are welded together powerfully by Richard Hickox. Kim Begley, Eric Halvarson, Simon Keenlyside, Timothy Robinson, Conal Coad and all the rest contribute to bringing to convincing life an incident during a war fought at sea in times long past.

There were a few flaws to note in the presentation of the one-interval, shortened version which we were seeing (despite apparent confusion in Alison Latham's historical notes for the programme book). Servant boys popped up from nowhere when needed and folding chairs were quickly found to simulate on the bare stage formal and informal meeting places, for drinks or court-martial. Billy knew exactly where to go to await sentence after having understandably struck (but implausibly killed) the creepy villain, whom no-one trusted. But instead of waiting there whilst the interview with Captain Vere took place behind closed doors, so graphically depicted by Britten, wordlessly, by means of a marvellous, long sequence of slow chords - one of the greatest moments in the score and in the original production - Billy had already been translated up onto the deck level to doze and ruminate about life and death, whilst awaiting his fate.

All that said, Billy Budd worked its spell once again, and we departed; moved, chastened and somewhat shattered by what has become one of Britten's most enduring creations. It was sung with exemplary diction and exceptional clarity, supported with sur-titles, which you could glance at or ignore at choice, an arrangement which I applaud (c.p. Manon Lescaut at the Coliseum). Far better than trying to follow operas with torch and libretto in the dark, as we often used to do.

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 !

Further performances, with sur-titles, until 3 October. See it, and let Seen&Heard know your preference.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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