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.
By contrast, his nemesis, the master-at-arms John Claggart, dominates the stage, especially as chillingly sung by bass Matthew Rose. He doesn't have a particularly large voice, but it's so well-focused and perversely beautiful in tone that we hang on his every word.
This Claggart, dressed in a long black leather coat, makes his entrances by rising like the devil from below or skulking past the berths where the men are sleeping. Alden makes his sexual attraction to Billy explicit by having him fondle the red neckerchief he has taken from the lad while he vows to destroy him. And when Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny and sees the lad is too tongue-tied to respond, he laughs in his face, goading him to throw the punch that will kill him.
The third principal, Vere himself, witnesses that encounter and, though he admires Billy and despises Claggart, orders the sailor hanged for attacking a superior officer. Tenor Kim Begley brings great pathos to Vere's torment, especially in the prologue and epilogue when he appears as an old man still brooding on the events of long ago.
The chorus sings magnificently, and there is strong support from many of the soloists, including baritone Jonathan Summers as Mr. Redburn, the first lieutenant; bass Gwynne Howell as Dansker, an old sailor; and Nicky Spence as the Novice.
Conductor Edward Gardner and the orchestra bring out the quiet lyric beauty of many passages while hitting the dramatic climaxes with thrilling power.