Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ at the English National Opera
Sometimes performing artists are automatically considered to have innate insights into the styles of their national heritages. Not necessarily. Like many opera buffs, I’ve heard Italian singers flounder through Verdi and German singers bark through Wagner.
Still, it means something to be nurtured in a tradition. And the performance that Mr. Gardner — a brilliant English conductor who has been music director of the English National Opera since 2007 — drew from the orchestra exuded an authority that comes, at least partly, from familiarity with Britten’s style and passed-down practices.
This opera was in my ear. Last month David Robertson conducted a searing account of “Billy Budd” at the Metropolitan Opera. A dynamic conductor of contemporary music, Mr. Robertson brought out the modern elements of Britten’s score, which came across like a milestone of 20th-century opera.
Whether intentionally or not, Mr. Gardner’s performance revealed qualities in the music that seemed distinctively British: the hazy harmonies and textures that conjure endless mists on the high seas; the evocation of sailors’ chanteys and pub tunes. Britten was the most literate of opera composers. Conveying words mattered crucially to him, and during long stretches of the score the orchestra supports and echoes the libretto, by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. Mr. Gardner and his players were particularly sensitive to this characteristic of the music.
Mr. Gardner has extensive experience with contemporary English music. On Thursday he conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the British premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s “Weltethos,” a triumphant performance of a major new work for chorus and orchestra by a leading composer. For his first outing as the music director of the English National Opera in 2007 Mr. Gardner led a gripping account of Britten’s “Death in Venice” in a new production starring Ian Bostridge.
No doubt there are numbers of non-English personnel in the orchestra and the chorus. Still, the company’s identification with homegrown opera, especially Britten, has to rub off.
The cast was headed by two admirable English singers. The baritone Benedict Nelson gave a fleshed-out and emotionally vulnerable performance of the tragic title character, a young sailor pressed into duty aboard a naval warship, the Indomitable, during British battles with the French in 1797. Mr. Nelson captured Billy’s boundless physical energy and decency while conveying the gullible nature that keeps Billy from seeing the malevolence of Claggart, the master-at-arms, until too late.
Like many fine British singers before him, Mr. Nelson made the words matter. You wanted more sheer vocal beauty during Billy’s aching final soliloquy, before he is put to death for killing Claggart by striking him during a stammering fit after being falsely accused of mutinous actions. But the honesty and directness of Mr. Nelson’s singing won me over.
As the well-meaning but weak-willed Captain Vere, the tenor Kim Begley gave an agitated and vocally piercing performance. The role is usually sung by more ethereal tenors. Mr. Begley’s burnished, sizable voice lent a heroic dimension to the captain’s torment.
At first I thought I would not like Mr. Alden’s production, with abstract sets by Paul Steinberg. The ship is suggested by an outer wall of black steel and an inner wall of rusty brown quadrangles, which make the vessel seem like an oil tanker. You would think the sailors were in a concentration camp, dressed in matching dingy uniforms and kept in line by club-wielding security guards.
But Mr. Alden is going for psychological, not scenic, realism, and once I made the adjustment, I was swept up. The battle scene in which the Indomitable finally encounters a French warship was terrifying. The men of the company’s chorus faced the audience and sang with chilling intensity. Mr. Gardner whipped the orchestra into a frenzy, while keeping the playing incisive and slashing. Four drummers pummeled out percussion riffs from the lower balcony, two on each side of the auditorium.
The role of Claggart, the psychologically twisted master-at-arms, full of thwarted attraction to the handsome Billy, is hard to bring off. His inner turmoil should be contained within his stiff exterior. The bass Matthew Rose was perhaps too uptight. He moved like a zombie and sometimes bellowed, but he brought vocal power and ominous shadings to his performance. A standout among this large and mostly strong cast was the bass Gwynne Howell as Dansker, the kindly old seaman liked by all, who has a fatherly affection for Billy.
And the tenor Nicky Spence changed my conception of the Novice. This character is usually portrayed as a young innocent, practically a boy, who is so humiliated when he is flogged for just being awkward and frightened that he becomes easy prey for the manipulative Claggart. With his husky frame and penetrating voice, Mr. Spence was a different kind of victim: an overgrown weakling who will do anything to avoid pain and punishment.
Mr. Alden and Mr. Gardner collaborated in 2009 on an acclaimed new production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” a work given its 1945 premiere by the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, which was renamed the English National Opera when it moved to the London Coliseum in 1968. Not many companies can match this one’s claim to the Britten mantle.
“Billy Budd” runs at the English National Opera in London through July 8; eno.org.