BILLY BUDD by Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster, directed by Neil Armfield, conducted by Richard Bradshaw, with Russell Braun, Nigel Robson, Jeffrey Wells, Lester Lynch, David Pomeroy and William Fleck. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). Runs April 14 and 19 at 8 pm, April 17 at 7 pm. 416-872-2262. Rating: NNN
the testosterone is palpable in
Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster's all-male 1951 opera about life, murder and mutiny on a British navy ship during the Napoleonic wars. It's Oz on the high seas.
But for all its three hours of billowing sails and bellowing voices, there are maybe 30 minutes of first-rate material. It's one of those operas that isn't performed often, and when you see it you understand why.
Forster's libretto is partly to blame. It's based on the ethically searching and ambiguous Melville story about a young pressed sailor who becomes the target of jealousy and resentment and ultimately meets a tragic end.
The libretto tells more than it shows. At times, it's confoundingly dull, as when the ship's captain, Vere (Nigel Robson), goes on about Plutarch, or when two of his officers make lame jokes about the French. Most amusing to modern ears is the shyly homoerotic fawning in the text, which in its more hysterical moments reads like an Edwardian gay SM fantasy.
But neither is Britten's score vivid enough to carry long passages. Apart from a couple of instrumental numbers depicting the sea -- a common enough theme for the composer -- and a truly rousing ensemble piece in the second act, the music isn't terribly distinguished
What captures our attention in this Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia production is Brian Thomson's ever-shifting set, dominated by a hydraulic scaffold that pivots and turns, constantly evoking the movement of a ship but also cuing us to look for shifts in drama, power, justice and time.
The roles are well sung, with Russell Braun suitably naive and optimistic as Billy. Braun saves his voice for the final soliloquy, but it doesn't pay off dramatically since it's hard to feel for his symbolic martyr figure. More intriguing are Jeffrey Wells's evil Claggart and Robson's philosophically searching Vere, who both add depth. David Pomeroy's clear singing and concentrated acting make a small role touching.
One directorial gaffe: a crucial plot point elicits laughter from the audience. Not a good sign.