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A grim, ghostly 'Billy Budd' on British stage
LONDON (AP) — A ghostly gloom dominates the stage of the London Coliseum, where the English National Opera is closing out its season with Benjamin Britten's 1951 shipboard tragedy "Billy Budd."
Surely life aboard a British naval ship was never quite so grim and oppressive as it appears in director David Alden's powerful but skewed new production, seen at its second performance Saturday night.
These sailors, whose choruses provide some of Britten's most inspired music, look and move more like zombies than able-bodied seamen as they scrub the deck with heavy stones or slowly drag ropes across the stage. Even when they relax below decks by singing sea shanties, there is precious little merriment.
The closest they come to animation is in the scene that opens Act 2, when the HMS Indomitable finally sights the French warship they've been awaiting. As the curtain rises, the men are at the rear, shrouded in fog, but they gradually move forward, singing "This is our moment!" as a giant gun is wheeled out to fire at the enemy. (Two sets of drummers standing in boxes on either side of the stage add to the excitement here.) But the shot falls short, the wind dies, and the men recede once again into the mist.
Alden's vision of the ship as a prison for the living dead is furthered by the dark tones of Adam Silverman's lighting and Constance Hoffman's costumes. Paul Steinberg's set is minimalist, the main deck represented by a bare stage with black or rust-orange backdrops appearing for other scenes. Only Captain Vere's cabin is brightly lit and painted white.
The weakness here is that by draining the crew of life, Alden prevents us from seeing the young sailor Billy Budd as part of the complex, even vibrant, shipboard society portrayed in the original Herman Melville story or the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier.
That may help account for why the performance by baritone Benedict Nelson doesn't have more impact. He sings well enough — movingly, in fact, in his final solo — but his personality tends to fade into the prevailing dreariness.