Melville and Gay Marriage
If there had only been gay marriage in Melville's day, none of it would have happened. David Alden's production of Billy Budd at the English National Opera has received very good reviews from many of my opera critic colleagues. Paul Steinberg's set and Constance Hoffman's costumes send mixed messages about the location and period of the drama, but seem to be trying to place the action in the present, in some sort of forced labour plant - a Soviet oil refinery perhaps? Or in the bowels of a nuclear submarine
But then there are the anachronistic early 19th century costumes of Captain Vere and some of the other naval officers, and the William IV chairs and table in Vere's quarters. Probably just Mr Alden's attempt to have his Modernist cake and eat it, but confusing.
I feel the staging compares unfavourably to Michael Grandage's at Glyndebourne, which was set about a breathtakingly accurate and detailed late 18th century Man of War, as called for in Melville and in E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier's libretto. It must have been very expensive - I've never before seen a production of Britten's opera that attempted this degree of realism - but it was totally satisfying, thrilling even.
Reflecting on the sets -curving black walls and brown wooden walls with shallow diagonal struts, black iron gantries and wheeled steps, a huge white tube that doubled as entrance to Vere's all-white quarters and as the cannon, plenty of ropes and some mattresses on the floor, a trap door for Claggart's bowels of the ship - I think I'd have preferred to let my imagination do the work with a bare stage to all this folderol.
Mr Alden's directing of the enormous augmented chorus also left a lot to be desired, as he massed them in a more or less straight line at the front of the stage, which meant they were competing with the large orchestra to see who could be the noisier. The orchestra, under Edward Gardner, played with real passion, and my only reservation is that their piano could have been more controlled and quiet, with more dynamic contrast. There were some fine individual performances, especially in the title role by Benedict Nelson, Kim Begley and Vere, Duncan Rock as a mightily muscled Donald, and Nicky Spence sang beautifully as the Novice.
ENO's programme notes, despite naval historian Andrew Lambert's use of "hung" for "hanged," are enlightening, particularly about the good navy knots the gay Britten and Forster tied themselves into when it came to making explicit the homoerotic undertones of the Melville novella. They made me reflect that the piece is a terrific argument for gay marriage.
The existence of gay marriage and the removal of the stigma regarding homosexuality would have nullified the Articles of War XXIX, which specified the death penalty "if any person in the fleet, shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery or sodomy, with man or beast." With the disappearance of the taboos, attitudes towards homosexual love would have change to what they are in the civilised part of the world today, and both Claggart and Vere could have admitted to themselves and to others their love for Billy. It would still be conflicted by their power relations - but that would be another, possibly more honest, plot. And in this openly gay Billy Budd Claggart could not be the Coleridgean unmotivated evil character that I think he is; as Auden pointed out, being capable of love would give Claggart a motive for his wickedness.
If there had been gay marriage in 1951, we shouldn't have had one of Britten's greatest works: the silver lining to a very black cloud.
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