2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Billy Budd

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, June 23

Rodney Milnes


This was a red-letter day for ENO, an outstanding production of Britten’s most worrying opera. Every time you see the Screw, you think it must be the composer’s greatest work, but then you see Budd …

Musical standards were impeccable, with the chorus (much augmented) and orchestra on absolutely top form. Edward Gardner had the epic scale of the score firmly under his belt and, given the clarity of texture he drew from his players, its detail as well. There were subtleties that I honestly hadn’t taken on board before, and the simplicity of the staging meant that you listened all the more attentively. The casting was strong from top to bottom—I wish there were space to name and praise singers in the many smaller roles. Kim Begley’s experienced Vere made every word tell—oh, those wretched surtitles. Maybe he was a little bland in the first act, but he rose to the man’s panic after the trial and—already the old Vere—to his witnessing of Budd’s execution and then to the Epilogue. Maybe Vere’s worst punishment is that, like Verdi’s Alvaro in the revised Forza, he survives.

Matthew Rose’s Claggart was equally strongly sung on ink-black tone. The last sentence of his monologue, launched pianissimo, was properly spine-chilling. Did you feel any sympathy, or should you, for a character potentially as tragic as Vere, as you did for Phillip Ens’s Master-at-Arms for WNO in 1998? A talking-point, and no criticism of Rose’s overpowering impersonation. Given the plangent musicianship with which the ENO Harewood Artist Benedict Nelson sang his Darbies solo, you could understand why he was cast as Budd, though ideally you need more weight of tone in the earlier scenes. Oddly, this is not really a young singer’s role—Christopher Maltman took it on prematurely for WNO, but he would be ideal today, as Nelson will be in a year or two.

Two other ENO Harewood Artists must be mentioned, Nicky Spence’s unusually powerfully presented Novice and Duncan Rock’s noticeable Donald. This Novice, bespectacled and generous of girth, must have been pressed by someone other than Claggart, and Spence sang with bags of incisive tone and freshly conceived characterization, turning what can seem a minor role into a major one. And there was Gwynne Howell’s Dansker, unsurpassable for so many years. If love, whatever that may be, has any place in this opera, then it is Dansker’s for Budd, and Howell’s ‘Goodbye, Baby’ was heart-breaking.

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