2005-12, ENO London, Billy Budd

Billy Budd

“He exudes virile, wholesome innocence without a hint of the mawkish, and sings with the utmost sensitivity.” Opera

“Keenlyside was mesmerising” The Evening Standard

“I doubt I will ever see a better Billy” The Stage

“Keenlyside’s is a genuinely great performance” Seen and Heard


Composer: Benjamin Britten
Librettist: EM Forster and Eric Crozier after Herman Melville’s unfinished story
Venue and Dates: English National Opera, Coliseum, London
3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17 December 2005
Conductor: Andrew Litton
Director: Neil Armfield
Designer: Brian Thomson
Costume Designer: Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings


Photo by Tristram Kenton

Billy Budd : Simon Keenlyside
Edward Fairfax Vere : Timothy Robinson
Claggart : John Tomlinson
Mr. Redburn : Ashley Holland
Mr. Flint : Pavlo Hunka
Mr. Ratcliffe : Brindley Sherratt (Simon Wilding on 3rd)
Dansker : Gwynne Howell
Red Whiskers : Adrian Thompson
Donald : Toby Stafford-Allen
Novice : James Edwards
Squeak : Richard Coxon
Maintop : Andrew Rees
Bosun : Nicholas Folwell
Novice’s Friend : William Berger
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Notes: Production originally created by Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia
The performance of 12.10.2005 was broadcast on BBC radio

Click here to read a transcription of an interview by Sean Rafferty of cast members, including SK.

BBC Radio 3, In Tune, 1 December 2005

From the ENO website:


‘Under no circumstances to be missed’ (The Guardian), Neil Armfield’s illuminating reading of Billy Budd receives its long-awaited London premiere. In the season in which Benjamin Britten becomes ENO’s House Composer, this engrossing WNO/Opera Australia production is the perfect salute to a great British masterpiece. The all-male cast sees Timothy Robinson making his role debut as Captain Vere, while the charismatic Simon Keenlyside sings the title role and Sir John Tomlinson appears as Claggart. With a sense of motion created through a cleverly abstract set, this Billy Budd is gripping theatre from start to finish.


Melanie Eskenazi chose ENO Billy Budd as her Seen and Heard “Concert of the year 2005” http://www.musicweb.uk.net/SandH/2006/Jan-Jun06/coty_2005.html

“unquestionably my musical event of the year”

“the ENO stages a hugely ambitious production of one of the greatest of all 20th century operas, by a great British composer, casts it from tremendous strength with a mostly British cast, and pulls off a notable triumph.”




Click here to read what Jane thought of Billy Budd

Click here for a review from fortunecity.co.uk

The sadist and the stutterer

James Fenton for The Guardian, December 2, 2005

How would Herman Melville have felt about his unfinished novella Billy Budd being turned into a homoerotic opera steeped in cruelty? Utterly baffled, says James Fenton.

Helen Wright for MusicOMH


Three stars

“The house was full for this eagerly awaited new production of Billy Budd, featuring the “dream team” of Simon Keenlyside as the handsome, innocent Billy and John Tomlinson as the evil sadist Claggart, determined to destroy him”

“The singing, on the other hand, is faultless. Simon Keenlyside reportedly considers he’s getting a bit long in the tooth for Billy, but his continuing athleticism and acting ability make this a nonsense. One may question whether his monkey-like swings around bits of the staging are strictly necessary, but there’s no doubting his enthusiasm and fresh-faced fervour as the newly recruited Billy: he is absolutely believable. His moving aria Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray as he awaits hanging is a triumph; the lyrical voice beautiful even when cracking with emotion. This is surely the finest portrayal of Billy for years, eclipsing for me that other favourite, Sir Thomas Allen.

Billy Budd ENO 1.12.05

Photo © 2005 ENO/Clive Barda

First Night reviews

Richard Morrison for The Times, December 05, 2005


Four stars

“On stage one towering performance dominates. John Tomlinson’s Claggart is a Hammer horror creation: an immense, baleful voice matched by the sort of make-up they favour in Transylvanian coffins, and an aura that could chill molten lava.

The contrast with Simon Keenlyside’s irrepressibly joyous Budd — hanging upside down from beams as he sings — could hardly be more striking. Keenlyside takes time to warm up, but he delivers his pre-execution soliloquy with wonderfully noble tone.

Timothy Robinson’s Vere is less vividly drawn. He floats high-lying lines beautifully, but never externalises enough of the Captain’s moral anguish.

Elsewhere, however, fine performances abound. Adrian Thompson’s blustery Red Whiskers, Gwynne Howells’s touching Dansker and Toby Stafford-Allen’s horn-piping Donald are all outstanding in a show that has the shattering power of a broadside.”

Tim Ashley for The Guardian, December 5, 2005


Four stars

“In London, we have Simon Keenlyside and John Tomlinson: these are great performances, though the coupling is less overtly sexual, and the metaphysics has darkened. Keenlyside is a vulnerable, athletic angel, barely attached to the deck as he clambers up ladders and swings from girders. Tomlinson is a heavy-bodied, lumbering demon, generating an unspeakable sense of evil whenever he appears.

Both, in effect, are battling for the soul of Timothy Robinson’s Vere, a finely judged portrait of a man whose nobility of intellect sits uneasily with moral weakness and an imperfect grasp of reality. The smaller roles are cast from strength and there’s some glorious choral singing. Andrew Litton’s conducting is thrilling, though the balance between pit and stage is far from perfect, with the orchestra engulfing the voices at climactic moments.”


John Tomlinson

A broadside of beauty and ambiguity
Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph, 5 December 2005

Simon Keenlyside is a great Billy Budd, capturing all the boy’s naivete and affectionate ardour, as well as his stuttering edginess. In the first act, he was singing a little below his best, the edges left rough and the phrasing broken by some uncharacteristically clumsy breathing, but he had struck peak vocal form by the time he was in chains awaiting the yardarm, and his gentle crooning of “Billy in the Darbies” was achingly moving.

John Tomlinson underplayed the nastiness of Billy’s infatuated antagonist Claggart: his injunction to the flogged Novice, “Let him crawl,” didn’t chill the blood, and the Iagoesque confessional monologue was marred by some raspingly hoarse and dry tone.

Timothy Robinson was singing his first Captain Vere, probably five years too early in his career. He sang the less taxing music with great sensitivity and intelligence, but lacks the air of authority – both vocal and spiritual – that is vital to the role. His doddery-old-man make-up for the prologue and epilogue was embarrassing. Farther down the ranks there was good work from Ashley Holland (Redburn), Adrian Thompson (Red Whiskers), Gwynne Howell (Dansker) and a magnificent male chorus, trained by ENO’s new chorus master, Martin Merry. For them, and for Keenlyside and Litton, it’s a performance well worth catching.”

Shipshape music rescues ‘Billy’

Edward Seckerson for The independent, 5 December 2005


Three stars

“The real hero of Britten’s Billy Budd is the orchestra. No disrespect to Simon Keenlyside, whose athletic, all-consuming portrayal of the title role is currently without peer, but the dark heart of this operatic masterpiece resides in the infinite and ever-changing orchestral seascape.”

“…Simon Keenlyside’s Billy plays to that terrible paradox. He really does inhabit the role, seemingly unaware of his physical attractions, his cat-like acrobatics conveying youth and enthusiasm and the desire only to please and serve. His visible embarrassment when he realises that he has wrongly assumed that Captain Vere has summoned him to offer the promotion he so craves is but one of many telling details in his performance. And never is there anything narcissistic about Keenlyside’s singing. He always goes for honesty and emotional truth.”


Photo by Robbie Jack

Andrew Clark for The Financial Times, December 5 2005


Britten’s naval opera is often seen as a portrait of a brutal establishment crushing a pretty innocent. Such simplistic thinking – shorthand for the way Britten and other homosexuals were treated 50 years ago is quickly drowned by the tidal force of Neil Armfield’s staging. This Budd, first staged in Wales in 1998, is no parable of innocence and corruption. With Captain Vere at its centre, trapped between poles of good and evil, it proposes a murkier dilemma: the conflict between justice of the law and justice of the heart. And by identifying Claggart’s homoerotic thoughts in Act 1 as he smells Billy’s handkerchief, it establishes the master-at-arms’s destructive power. Claggart’s feelings for the lusty lad open a chink of vulnerability, something his regime of brutal repression cannot tolerate. That is why love turns to hate.

By opting for an abstract setting, Armfield and his designers, Brian Thomson, Carl Friedrich Oberle and Nigel Levings, focus unremittingly on character and motive. But by giving the officers Napoleonic-era uniform, they keep the drama anchored in its maritime/historical context. Andrew Litton conducts a performance of beautifully calibrated energy, underlining the quality of ENO’s ensemble. Simon Keenlyside is still lithe enough to portray “baby Budd’s” youthful high spirits, as definitive a portrait as John Tomlinson’s Hagen-like Claggart. Timothy Robinson is the poised but weedy Vere, Gwynne Howell a Dansker of heart-warming humanity.

Billy Budd ENO 1.12.05

Tim Robinson as Vere. Photo © 2005 ENO/Clive Barda

Nick Armstrong for The Times Literary Supplement


“A potential problem with “Billy Budd” is that Claggart can come across as a two-dimensional villain, irrationally ill-disposed to Billy. It is a key success of this production that this danger is largely avoided. John Tomlinson’s Claggart magnificently projects a sense of dark violence without melodrama, vocally hair-raising and physically colossal, bleached face, staring eyes, stiff movements. One believes the self-analysis in his monologue towards the end of Act I. He describes that his response to the “depravity to which [he] was born” was to construct his own “dark world”, but that Billy’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers”. Maybe the “depravity” is a taste for sadism, and the dark world is simply the naval life of discipline and bullying which Claggart has espoused but which Billy’s influence shows to be invalid. But (bearing in mind that Britten, Pears and E M Forster are the prime movers of this work), this production suggests that Claggart’s “depravity” is homosexuality, which he has buried behind walls of defensive cruelty and discipline. Billy’s unique qualities (“O beauty, handsomeness, goodness!”) threaten to be too strong for his defences to withstand. Claggart is lost – the repression is too strong, he cannot bear to confront his shadow, his buried nature, and must therefore destroy the threat. This Claggart’s villainy has convincing psychological weight.”

Billy Budd ENO 1.12.05

Photo © 2005 ENO/Clive Barda

”If Tomlinson’s performance is crucial to bringing this off dramatically, so equally is Simon Keenlyside’s. Shining vocal delivery is allied to astonishing physicality – he springs around the stage, manages to sing whilst hanging like a monkey from pieces of scenery, runs up and slides down ladders and steps, and yet at key moments finds the simplicity and stillness to allow the lyrical centrepieces of the role (above all on the eve of his execution) to deliver their full emotional effect. It is entirely believable that Claggart should fear being brought to his knees by this boy (Keenlyside easily knocks the requisite 20 years off his age).”

”One classic dramatic device is used to great effect. The elderly Vere is discovered at the opening twisting a piece of red material in his hands – we realise what it is when we see it around Billy’s neck as he first comes aboard the Indomitable, the only splash of contrast in the predominantly grey-blue-black design of the production. Claggart then orders Billy to take off this non-regulation neckerchief – which we see next during Claggart’s monologue (referred to above) when he draws it from within his jacket. He has been keeping it next to his heart – a telling sign of the extent to which Billy has breached the Claggart defences.”

”So a broadly impressive evening despite one or two significant flaws. The second half in particular had great overall impact – the “life on the ocean wave” sequences of the first act are dramatically problematic, but the human drama of the second act are concentrated and coherent. And, in the hands of Tomlinson and Keenlyside, gripping and moving.”

Billy Budd ENO 1.12.05

Photo © 2005 ENO/Clive Barda

The Evening Standard, 6 December 2005

“This atmospheric staging of Britten’s all-male opera, the London premiere of Neil Armfield’s Welsh National Opera production, was a reminder of what such a company can do. Adversity brought out the best in a stunning cast which, with Simon Keenlyside as Budd and John Tomlinson as Claggart, is at once home-grown and international. Keenlyside was mesmerising, now Puck-like in his physicality, tragic in simplicity, dazzling in vocal agility and variety. Tomlinson, black-voiced and forbidding as the thuggish Claggart, brilliantly conveyed the agony behind the bully’s cold exterior.
Many of those taking the 17 named roles have grown up in ENO. Gwynne Howell was touching as Dansker. Timothy Robinson made a strong start in the complex role of Vere. Toby Stafford-Allen and Adrian Thompson gave expert support.”

”The chorus, in thunderous full voice, excelled.”

”Andrew Litton conducted with sweep and momentum, the score’s shimmering colours well brought out by the orchestra, despite lapses. Neil Armfield directs with clarity and no fuss. Brian Thomson’s set is dominated by a tilting hydraulic platform which gave evocative shipboard perspectives, catching and swallowing the light. At times the endless heaving and attendant noise were distracting. Yet this merely emphasised the terrible claustrophobia of Melville’s story. The urge to make trite comparisons between life on board the Indomitable and offstage at ENO is almost irresistible. But whether shipwrecked or becalmed, and however many of its officers have been seen to walk the plank, this company can still deliver its operatic cargo.”


David Blewitt for The Stage, 5 December 2005


“I doubt I will ever see a better Billy. Simon Keenlyside subtly colours his noble baritone, weds a lithe athleticism to dramatic flair to forge a searingly truthful portrait of innocence betrayed. The scene in the darbies is heart-breaking.”


A gripping evening

Robert Hugill for Music and Vision


“Simon Keenlyside made a welcome return to the role of Billy Budd. The role, embodying youthful good looks and exuberance as it does, is a tricky one for a baritone to sustain as he matures. But on this showing Keenlyside is still a Billy to be reckoned with. His performance was very physical, lively with much running, jumping and climbing the rigging; almost too much, as if Keenlyside was trying to prove a point. His Billy was charming and appealing but Keenlyside still brought a wonderful depth to the Billy in the Darbies scene. John Tomlinson’s Claggart is a known quantity; it was good to see him in the role again. Tomlinson’s delivery has a power of communication and intensity which lends itself to this sort of role. In Armfield’s production, Tomlinson’s Claggart was a severe, repressed, buttoned up figure, only revealing his real thoughts in his long solo, where he caressed Billy’s red neckerchief (this neckerchief cropped up at various points in the production: Vere held it during the prologue and epilogue).”

“Timothy Robinson was making his role début as Vere and what a very impressive début it was. Hearing a lyric tenor in the role is getting rarer nowadays and Robinson brought real style and grace to the role. His prologue and epilogue were profoundly moving and had uncanny moments where he echoed Peter Pears. Robinson’s Vere will undoubtedly grow; at the moment he lacks something of the moral authority the role needs. This was most noticeable as he was playing alongside two such experience singers as Keenlyside and Tomlinson. Robinson must also learn to do nothing with more dynamism; his failure of nerve in the court martial scene could have been more vivid, more intense. But this was a notable début and it was interesting hearing how much Robinson has developed as a singer.”

“The remaining roles were very strongly cast. James Edwards made a notable début as the novice, brave enough to strip off more than his shirt for his flogging, and Toby Stafford-Allan impressed as Donald. He made a notable ensemble partnership with Adrian Thompson’s Red Whiskers and Gwynne Howell’s Dansker. One of the production’s strengths was the way these smaller, but important roles were so well cast with a mixture of experience and not so experienced singers. Gwynne Howell’s experience was particularly notable as he was one of the singers in the cast who had actually worked with Britten.”


Melanie Eskenazi for  Seen and Heard Opera Review


“Simon Keenlyside is a natural for the role of Billy: Forster wrote of Melville’s creation that he has ‘the goodness of the glowing aggressive sort which cannot exist until it has evil to consume’ (Aspects of the Novel) and Keenlyside caught this perfectly: Britten’s presentation of him of course reflects the composer’s preoccupation with innocence destroyed by the hostility of its surroundings, and this singer knows just how to convey that in every nuance. Superbly graceful in his actions, his physical beauty (quite different from the more ‘rugged’ Christopher Maltman, who sang the part with WNO when this production was first seen) renders his predicament all the more poignant, and his singing left little to be desired: ‘Billy in the darbies’ pierced the soul, with the break in the tone at ‘But look: Through the port comes the moon-shine astray’ and the understated fervour of the final lament achieving the kind of stillness and completeness which one so rarely hears.”

“Keenlyside’s is a genuinely great performance, but not the only one, since the ENO had wisely cast John Tomlinson as an exceptionally cruel Claggart: in a letter to Britten, written in 1950, Forster said ‘I want passion –  love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil. Not soggy depression or growling remorse’ and this was exactly how Claggart is conceived here: no pantomime villain, but as hidebound by the constriction of his passion as a film character played by Eric von Stroheim might be by his anger. ‘O beauty, o handsomeness’ was shattering, Tomlinson’s crystalline diction allowing us to savour every word, his tone so menacing yet so beguiling that we could not avoid thoughts of Iago – ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.’ “


Billy, he’s such a hero. At last, some good news at English National Opera as Simon Keenlyside crests the wave in a superb Billy Budd.

Anthony Holden for the Observer, Sunday December 11, 2005


”The terrifying Tomlinson is the Claggart of Britten’s school nightmares – almost, with his Dracula-style white-face, to the point of caricature. Timothy Robinson’s Vere also sings beautifully, but fails quite to convey the full depth of the tortured captain’s sufferings.”

“The unforgettable performance is Simon Keenlyside’s in the title role. This great artist captures Billy’s innocence and gullibility while making full use of his renowned gymnastic skills, swinging from the cantilevered set and sliding down ladders while singing his haunting part with great beauty.”

“This is a memorable performance of a great work, as gripping as it is harrowing – not exactly an evening to enjoy, but one you should not miss.”


Metrolife (Evening Standard) Dec 6th , by Warwick Thompson

Three stars ***

With the ENO turmoil after the shock resignation of its artistic director, Sean Doran (whose name still appears in the programme), the company desperately needs a critical and popular hit to restore morale. If only this were it.

B.Britten’s tale of a naive young seaman who is destroyed by a sadisitic petty officer demands a claustrophobic, intense staging. Director Neil Armfield sets the action around a hydraulic dais in the middle of an empty stage, and once you have seen it rise and tilt, you’ve seen everything it has to offer.

Maybe it’s supposed to represent the tossing of the ship’s deck. But a pitching platform of officers in the middle of an unpitching chorus of seamen doesn’t exactly create that effect. Add that to some poorly mimed rope-heaving and the villain’s exaggerated make-up staight out of suburban panto and the list of miscalculations just goes on and on. Muscular baritone Simon Keenlyside is great as Billy, as rich of voice as he is energetic, and John Tomlinson is wonderfully menacing as his nemesis Claggart: they get the extra star. Timothy Robinson is vocally overtaxed in the demanding tenor role of the ship’s captain but there is some exciting playing from the orchestra under Andrew Litton. Otherwise, it’s all at sea.


Opera: Billy rides the storm
Despite choppy waters backstage at the Coliseum, Hugh Canning finds Britten’s naval classic looking shipshape

Hugh Canning for The Sunday Times, December 11, 2005


“I don’t think I have heard an orchestrally finer account of Britten’s score in the theatre — the sequence of chords describing Captain Vere’s conflicting emotions as he prepares to break the death sentence to the hapless Billy was gut-wrenchingly upsetting — and the male chorus sounded in finer fettle than for many a season.

With Simon Keenlyside, still looking amazingly youthful and agile for a man in his mid-forties, and John Tomlinson, almost unrecognisable without his Wotan-Wanderer beard, as a handsome Billy and creepily toad-like Claggart, two of the leads had been assigned to singers whose part in the performance history of this great opera is significant. Keenlyside can still “do” innocence, malevolently destroyed by Tomlinson’s baleful master-at-arms.

Timothy Robinson made his role debut as Captain Vere: he has the Peter Pears-like timbre, but, as yet, lacks the stamina to ride the choral and orchestral tumult of the battle scene. This is a reading of the part that will clearly mature, however, and Robinson is an echt-Britten tenor. Among the crew of the Indomitable, it was good to see seasoned old hands such as Gwynne Howell (still eloquent as Dansker), Adrian Thompson (Red Whiskers), Pavlo Hunka (Mr Flint) and Nicholas Folwell (Bosun) working alongside promising youngsters such as James Edwards (Novice) and William Berger (his friend).

Neil Armfield’s staging remains effective and serviceable — though sometimes poorly lit — even if Brian Thomson’s revolving hydraulic platform occasionally looks lost and hyperactive on the large Coliseum stage. But, thanks to Litton, Keenlyside and Tomlinson, ENO has another box-office winner on its hands. The three performances this week really shouldn’t be missed.”


Snow White meets Saint Sebastian

Anna Picard for The Independent on Sunday, 11 December 2005


“The character of Billy shares the blithe, passive beauty of Snow White and the exquisite martyrdom of an early saint. “

”If the accompaniment is exceptional and the movement well-drilled, so too is the singing. Though Simon Keenlyside (Billy) is too complex a performer ” and perhaps now too mature ” to convince me that he is the sweet innocent of Melville’s imagining, his physical and vocal artistry are stunning. John Tomlinson (Claggart) is a similarly charismatic presence but his apoplectic bluster undermines the more seductive aspects of Claggart’s character and his make-up is reminiscent of a rabbit in a shampoo laboratory.”

”More emotionally affecting are Timothy Robinson’s eloquent, impotent Captain Vere, Gwynne Howell’s grave Dansker, Toby Stafford-Allen’s hearty Donald, and Adrian Thompson’s agile Red Whiskers. The remainder of the ensemble ” too numerous for individual credit ” sing and act well, as do the ENO chorus.”


Gwynne Howell (Dansker)


HE Elsom for concertonet, 12/03/2005


”Nevertheless, the singers were generally excellent. Simon Keenlyside, although in purely objective terms at least ten years too old for the title role, conveyed Billy’s sweetness and good nature, as well as his physical appeal and pride in his craft, the singing actor’s courageous athleticism in character serving as a pretty good substitute for the topmastmanship that Melville admires and makes Billy’s peers admire. In spite of his highly intelligent approach to performance, Keenlyside is a wonderful Papageno as well, and his Billy was never remotely cerebral.”

”The rest of the ensemble were well characterized, especially Gwynne Howell’s sympathetic Dansker (allowed a beard, presumably because of his age), and the chorus caught the powerful moods of the sea and war in the music.”

Billy Budd ENO 1.12.05

A Budd in full flower
Keith McDonnell for UK Gay.com, 9 December, 2005

“ENO fields as strong a cast as is available today. In the title role Simon Keenlyside not only sings with a laser-like intensity but looks the part and acts extremely well. His soliloquy as he awaits his death is heartbreaking.”


Sabby Sagall for The Socialist Worker, 17 December 2005


Directed by Neil Armfield for the English National Opera Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville’s story, is set on a British warship in 1797, during the war against revolutionary France and in the immediate aftermath of the great mutinies at Spithead and Nore. The ship, HMS Indomitable, is a microcosm of British society, with the officers who rule at the top, the men who work at the bottom, the two separated by the non-commissioned officers in the middle striving to attain the status of the rulers. The latter struggle to be accepted as fully-fledged officers by doing their dirty work: maintaining a regime of cruel discipline. The leading figure here is Claggart, master-at-arms, who oversees the men on behalf of the aristocratic Captain Vere. The officers themselves are constantly on the lookout for the influence of ‘French’ or revolutionary ideas.

Billy is pressganged into service on The Indomitable. Despite this, he thinks only of doing his job and winning promotion. Claggart feels threatened by Billy and forces a novice seaman to bribe him into mutiny. Billy’s anger leads him to accidentally kill Claggart, and a court-martial sentences him to be hanged. Captain Vere has the power to commute the sentence but is swayed by the need for iron discipline in the face of the threat from France. Shocked by this injustice, the men finally threaten to mutiny, while Captain Vere broods on his moral weakness in failing to save Billy.

First produced in 1951, with a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, the music of Billy Budd is full of rhythmic energy, a powerful modern work that testifies to Britten’s ability to switch from great dramatic scenes of political, and personal conflict to more reflective arias expressing internal moral dilemmas.

Britten (1913-1975), like Michael Tippett (1905-1998), developed muscially and politically in the left-wing atmosphere of the 1930s. His first opera, Peter Grimes (1945), tells the story of a solitary fisherman who employs a series of workhouse boys as apprentices. When they die under mysterious circumstances, Grimes is persecuted by a local community that blame him. He becomes a tragic figure, self-destructive but misunderstood. (See Anthony Arblaster’s “Viva La Liberta: Politics in Opera” — Chapter 9 on ‘Democratic Opera’). With Peter Grimes, Britten can be said to have founded modern British opera. Although his radicalism waned in the post-war period, he did remain a pacifist.

The ENO’s production by Neil Armfield is conceived on a grand scale, with an impressive moving hydraulic platform simulating the warship. The action is well-paced with fine acting performances accompanying some wonderful singing, in particular from Simon Keenlyside as Billy, Timothy Robinson as Captain Vere and John Tomlinson as Claggart. The orchestra, under Andrew Litton, performs to its usual high standard, capturing the opera’s tragedy and poignancy as well as the anger the men feel at the gross injustice. We come to feel what it must have been like being a seaman in the British navy of the 1790s.

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Photo by Sami

A review in Spanish (Brillante ‘Billy Budd’, de Britten, en la English National Opera) from Actualidad, 5 December 2005.

We are working on an English translation


A review in Spanish by Eduardo Benarroch for Opera del Buen Ayre, 5 December 2005


Translated by Nikki Braterman

For those readers who know this work, have seen it and think that Billy Budd’s punishment is too severe and rather unreasonable under the circumstances, I ask them to consider the idea of mutiny as we now consider an act of terrorism. If someone told the Captain of a warship that there was an Al Qaeda cell on board, what would he and his officers do?

Besides, the historical context speaks for itself. After the French Revolution any rumour of rebellion, or sign of individuality were good reasons for distrusting the person in whom they were manifest. And Billy Budd is a danger to this ship named ‘Indomitable’ for his individualism, his enthusiasm and his total commitment.

Not for nothing does Claggart call him ‘beauty’ and not only in the obvious homosexual context. Billy Budd is a ‘rara avis’ in a warship whose crew must be anonymous, he must therefore be destroyed because his mere presence on board is dangerous and destroys the reigning homogeneity. There was nothing worse than being accused of rebellion or sympathy with the French cause, and how interesting that Billy Budd comes from a ship that is called ‘Rights O’Man’…

There are many levels of drama in this opera, apart from that of homosexual repression which is obvious and leaps to the eye. But there is an element missed by many spectators, not through their fault but because they haven’t been shown where to look, and what to refer to when seeing and hearing this work. It’s no secret that the glories of the United Kingdom were achieved at sea by a nation that is very proud of its seagoing heritage. Many everyday phrases come from the British Navy.

Billy Budd is just that: a representation of the seagoing past in all its grandeur and cruelty. The individual is of no importance, what matters is the team spirit: anonymous and focussed on the enemy.  There is no room for sentimentalism or poetry, this is war without quarter and anyone who gets in the way will fall.

Britten’s score is exceptional, although with less creativity and fantasy than ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for example. There are too many external influences in Billy Budd for it to be considered totally original, we have the enormous influence of Bartok and even the parody of Claggart accompanied by music that we normally associate with the Verdian Grand Inquisitor. Nonetheless, the work has strength and in the right hands, much cruelty in every part of the excellent orchestration.

Britten was a man who knew how to interpret his own music, as well as knowing how to conduct Haydn and Mozart par excellence. But when we arrive at Billy Budd, I haven’t found another conductor like him. Perhaps David Atherton has conducted it with ferocity and ruthlessness, which is absolutely necessary, but the ironic detail that Britten brought to it is yet to find a successor. It occurs to me, having listened to Richard Hickox’s memorable version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ last Saturday that he might be the conductor to drive this work as it demands.

Billy Budd is not a lyrical work, it’s a cruel and terrible work with moments of lyricism and it shouldn’t sound romanticised at all. The attack of the different sections and the solo instruments must be much more ferocious, more incisive and less rounded than the way in which the ever-efficient Andrew Litton conducted it, although his efficiency didn’t serve him here, where more is needed.

Neither did I find any justification for the so-called ‘new production’ of Neil Armfield, coming from Australia via Welsh National Opera…  I don’t see the reason for replacing the previous production with one from 1998.

The best of this setting is the moving platform occupying centre stage and constantly giving the sense of the rise and fall of the ship, but the changes were noisy and rather slow, which doesn’t really tie in with the idea of the British Navy at war, which demanded training and precision, even in that era.

The basic problems of this production lie in the lack of differentiation between the classes and the spectator’s few opportunities to feel life on board from the crew’s point of view, who lived crowded together below deck in a suffocating atmosphere while the officers had their little state rooms and a life of much greater space and elegance. The class system shows itself in everyday English life and Billy Budd is no exception to this and it must be shown as an intrinsic part of the work.

Within this context, there were some sensational creations. I must take my hat off to John Tomlinson’s extraordinary interpretation of Claggart.  Here we have a role so stereotyped that it’s almost a sacrilege to bring anything new to it. But Tomlinson does just that.  There is less of the latent homosexuality than in other productions and this, instead of detracting from the character, gives it something more.  What a paradox!

This Claggart walks slowly, but deliberately and securely, he knows how to be servile to the officers, who hold him in fear and respect, and especially to Captain Vere. But with what cruelty he treats the sailors whom he knows to be the weakest. Claggart obviously and immediately recognises something unusual in Billy and leaves us in no doubt from the start that he will destroy Billy, at whatever cost, including his own life. Britten gives Claggart Verdian Grand Inquisitor music, the instruments used are also similar and in this case Tomlinson represents the Inquisition of the British Navy, who knows how to destroy by rumour and malice in order to maintain his power.

Into this setting falls the figure of Billy Budd, but a different Billy, because Simon Keenlyside presents him as a young man full of life and enthusiasm who makes us believe in his ambition (read the text) and who above all enjoys the sailor’s life. Here is a young man with almost Wagnerian roots, who knows nothing of himself and who appears in a cruel microcosm which he never manages to understand.

And with what innocence Keenlyside appears before Captain Vere, thinking that he’s been called for promotion! The only thing which I thought rather excessive was the amount of athletic movement, which gave the impression of an acrobat and didn’t allow us to see who this Billy really was. A little more stillness on stage would do much to create a more profound character, but given Keenlyside’s vocal quality, this is a minor matter.

The rest of the cast didn’t reach these heights, but were a decent choice. I particularly liked Gwynne Howell’s Dansker – a good bloke who maintains his pride and his personality. Adrian Thompson was also excellent as Red Whiskers and all the children who give this piece a dash of the exotic and different.

All the officers were good, Pavlo Hunka as Mr Flint, Ashley Holland as a Mr Redburn who is very dependent on his captain and Brindley Sherratt as Lieutenant Ratcliffe.

But there is another crucial role: Captain Vere, a complex role acting as the conscience of the piece. The character needs a Mozartian tenor but with weight and have we heard any better in this than Pears? But there have been some excellent interpreters of this role, like Philip Langridge, who have brought both the necessary emphasis and weight.

I would we could say the same for the young Timothy Robinson, in his debut as Vere. Robinson has clear diction and a well-schooled voice but he doesn’t have the power which the character needs in the important scenes. And that’s where he failed. I must say that for most of the piece, Robinson sang very adequately but it was a pity that he made his debut in such a big theatre.

I liked the chorus very much and they showed they could perform well in spite of the terrible times the theatre is going through, having just lost its Artistic Director.

But the greatest error of the evening was giving the conductor’s baton to Andrew Litton, although I’ve always liked him very much in the past. But Litton approached this work from a lyrical, romantic point of view with a big sound that prevented many scenes from being heard and this should have been considered, given how important the text is. As well as missing the opportunity to show the cruelty of the atmosphere, his reading was sweet when it should have been bloody.


Photo by Sami

Irresistibly moving
The Spectator, 17 December 2005. You have to subscribe to read the entire text.


“The radiant innocence is actually denied by Simon Keenlyside, who nonetheless gives a performance of Billy which can’t be interpreted in any other way. Yet in an interview he gave on BBC3 last year Keenlyside said that Billy ‘is just a normal boy’, and even more flabbergastingly, ‘What 17-year-old is guilty of anything?’ Such ingenuousness may have the reward that Keenlyside plays Billy as he plays Papageno, full of goodwill and without a touch of suspicion about his fellow beings. If Billy has a flaw, that blemish that Captain Vere muses uselessly on in the Prologue, it is not, surely, his stutter, which is an incapacity, not a flaw, but his inability to think anyone is not as guileless as he is. And when he is waiting to be hanged, Billy turns poet and philosopher, singing Melville’s own lovely ‘Billy in the Darbies’, and then musing about ‘dreams that needn’t be dreamt’ and concluding ‘I’m content.’ None of that may make him a saint, but it also doesn’t make him into a single coherent character. Yet such is the marvellous art that conceals art with which Keenlyside performs the part that pressing awkward questions about it remains painful. He is the most athletic presence, surely, the operatic stage has ever witnessed, bounding and leaping like a fit monkey all over the exiguous scenery, meanwhile singing with a warmth and clarity which are both irresistibly attractive and moving, and also call into question the whole dynamic of the drama in which he is placed.”


Agustín Blanco for mundoclassico.com, 9 January 2006


An English translation will follow

Rodney Milnes for Opera Magazine, February 2006

“…it was plain that for Dansker – an infInitely touching performance by Gwynne Howell-it was love at first sight when Billy came aboard. His administering of the last rites was nigh impossible

to witness.”

“The amazingly athletic Simon Keenlyside – had there been a chandelier, he would have swung on it – has still to be the Budd of the day. He exudes virile, wholesome innocence without a hint of the mawkish, and sings with the utmost sensitivity.”


Opernglas February 2006 (B. Kempen)

Translated by Ursula Turecek


Billy Budd

3rd December – English National Opera

Squalls and lashing waves, hoisted sails and pithy heroic words are paradoxically not the elements of tension constituting the drama of the seafaring opera “Billy Budd” – quite the contrary. In Herman Melville’s narrative set by Benjamin Britten in 1951 naivety and intrigues, power and powerlessness, love and hatred are the antipoles colliding aboard the English man-of-war “Indomitable” at the end of the 18th century and resulting in the tragedy of Billy Budd’s execution. These emotions prove to be translated directly, clearly and unmistakably in Britten’s composition.

In the adoption of the opera’s production from Welsh National Opera Cardiff and Opera Australia Sydney (1998) to the English National Opera these attributes pervade the whole musical presentation consistently too. Andrew Litton makes the orchestra strike up greatly, gaudily, nearly brutally when the battle with the French is impending and the ship’s complement is hammering courage into the heads with slogans and commands. And with the same intensity he captures the sallow colours of treason and lie, portrays Billy’s candour in unsophisticated simplicity and offers a basis and room for development to the characters on stage.

The production corresponds. Neil Armfield does not look for the cause of the action’s human disasters in the conditions of the situation on a man-of-war, but in the personal constellation of the people meeting here. Thus the oppressive constriction of a ship and the insecure vastness of the sea get irrelevant for the story line and are therefore not translated scenically. Instead the varying components of the stage setting – a rotary hydraulic stage, Billy’s ladder to the masthead, two elements of stairs – mark the social ranks on board, dangerous incertitudes, personal liberties and separating differences. The protagonists in historically precise costumes are able to develop optimally in this ambience, especially as the lighting evolves from homogeneous brightness at the beginning into exact details of colours, spotlights and shadows too so that every face on stage makes an impression, every individualization is allowed to have its effect and every character receives clear outlines.

To translate the demands of this production Armfield admittedly has at his disposal a “creme de la creme cast” able to produce enormous capacities concerning the acting skills alongside the internalisation of singing. Simon Keenlyside is far from creating the name part as an angelic nature-boy. He succeeds in a slender and absolutely natural musical analysis without any rupture. But important for his understanding of Billy is his body language: Keenlyside clambers through the ship’s scenery like an artiste and demonstrates freedom without fear, able to hang “headlong” and coping with vertiginous heights. But Billy’s handicap of stuttering crampedly in stressful situations, in turn finding an outlet only in physicalness, in violence of passion, comes into its own the more fatally and tragically. And despite the direct candour and the clear language with which Keenlyside portrays Billy Budd the invigorative quintessence of this incredible opera character remains mysterious.

Physicalness and mystery are involved in the interpretation of John Claggart too, but in a completely different way. The master-at-arms proves to be a sick man: bloated, sallow skin, dark rings under the eyes, physically immobile, mentally stuck. John Tomlinson presents him with attacking rigour, a pushed and harsh upper register and ice cold undertones – until a short moment in Claggart’s “I will destroy him”: Claggart takes Billy’s red neckerchief from the front pocket of his jacket and caresses it because not hatred but love that must not be is the motor for his defamation and intrigue. With a panicky loving colouring of his voice and a facial expression of emotions in very subtle doses Tomlinson displays the secret of a lonely, embittered, consumed man here.

In the piece’s leading part Timothy Robinson makes his debut. He accomplishes the part of Captain Edward Fairfax Vere with noble elegance and brilliantly pithy arcs and remains the restrained and distinguished aesthete who is ruled by his head but haunted nevertheless by the ghosts of the past because of his guiltiness due to his failure to render assistance, even in emotional moments.

The cast of the other crew of the ship is successful too. Ashley Holland as Mr. Redburn, Pavlo Hunka’s Mr. Flint and Lieutenant Ratcliffe by Simon Wilding who stood in demonstrated competently power and countenance in differentiated vocal force and articulation. Corporal Squeak obtains the aftertaste of dangerousness and sadism in Richard Coxon’s tenor. As a very realistically punished Novice, James Edwards, performs with impressively beautiful euphony. Toby Stafford-Allen, Nicholas Folwell and Andrew Rees give profile to Donald, Bosun and to the Maintop. Adrian Thompson’s Red Whiskers meets his role’s firmly comical features as well as Geraint Hylton the tragical ones of Arthur Jones. Gwynne Howell enhances the exposed part of Dansker even more with the distinctive timbre of experience of life in his characterful bass.

The few seconds of silence after Captain Vere’s quiet exit into the darkness at the end of the first night were speaking for themselves, even more than the following short but vehement applause: justified approval for pure full-blooded theatre that had to offer drama at the highest stage instead of a spectacularly new interpretation.


George Hall for Opera News, March  2006 , vol 70 , no.9

Billy Budd, English National Opera, 12/3/05

“Fortunately, Armfield showed an ability to direct his characters and the entire crew of the ship with some acumen. Two of the three central performances, both from a vocal and a dramatic point of view, struck home with exceptional force. The first of these was Simon Keenlyside’s embodiment of the title role. Keenlyside’s flexible and always musically inventive singing was of the highest quality, but very much part and parcel of a physical portrayal that was absolutely convincing in its easy grace and youthful athleticism. Without the role in his diary for the next few seasons, Keenlyside has suggested that this will probably be his last assumption of Budd. It’s a role that has regularly brought out the best in performers, and his superb portrait will linger in the memory as a comprehensively excellent achievement.

John Tomlinson’s Claggart was its equal and opposite. Sung with masterly authority throughout the wide range and depth of characterization required, the British bass’s portrayal embodied vividly the twisted, destructive personality let loose by authority to torment his fellow men — the young, innocent Billy in particular. Here was another performance to go down in the opera’s annals.”


Timothy Ball for Classicalsource.com, December 3 2005


”The cast was of a very high quality and boasted, in the title role and in his antagonist Claggart, artists who are arguably the current leading interpreters of those parts.

Simon Keenlyside’s personable manner and fine baritone combine to create, in Billy Budd, a likeable and sympathetic character totally oblivious to the machinations of Claggart and uncomprehending of them when finally confronted by the latter and falsely accused of spreading seditious thoughts and plotting mutiny. It was easy to understand, through Keenlyside’s portrayal, why he was beloved by the crew of the H.M.S. Indomitable. His singing of his scene ‘Billy in the Darbies’ where he awaits his execution, was touching and never threatened to become inappropriately sentimental – a fine piccolo solo, too. Elsewhere, his ebullience conveyed the good-hearted nature of Billy’s personality.”

“By contrast, John Tomlinson’s Claggart was the personification of malevolence and twisted, perverted intent. His dark timbre is particularly suited to this part, which he sang without rant or exaggeration. By scrupulous attention to the vocal line, this malignant character was most strongly – and chillingly – evoked. An interesting directorial touch was to have Claggart carrying the red neckerchief he had taken earlier from Billy. He sang the start of his big soliloquy ‘O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!’ directly too it. He concealed it close to his chest. Later on, Vere picked it up, and it functioned as a visible symbol of Budd.”

“This was a performance altogether worthy of Britten’s great opera.”



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