There is a slight tilt to everything about the National Theatre’s new production of Britten’s Billy Budd. The dynamics of the set all list stage left, a backdrop is cut across the bottom at a matching angle, and the few props jut from the stage floor as if they’re half-submerged, all suggesting a physical and moral universe gone askew. Unfortunately the direction suffers from the same imbalance, turning what should be a taut thriller into a plodding snooze. 

Štefan Margita	 (Captain Vere) © Patrik Borecký
Štefan Margita (Captain Vere)
© Patrik Borecký

In many ways this echoes the last opera Daniel Špinar directed for the National Theatre, Janáčék’s From the House of the Dead. There’s the same tendency to litter the stage with extraneous action and characters, the fascination with nearly naked dancers and fixation on a single, perplexing prop anchored to the center of the stage. In House of the Dead it was a piano; this time it’s a hospital bed, which fits the elderly Captain Vere’s opening and closing reminiscences, but otherwise could hardly be more out of place.

Both operas also feature all-male casts, which in House of the Dead Špinar took as an invitation to introduce homoerotic elements. They already comprise the subtext of Billy Budd, which Špinar turns into the dominant theme. Master-at-Arms Claggart, torn between his attraction to Billy and urge to destroy him, is followed around for most of the evening by five male gymnast/dancers clad only in flesh-colored briefs. As manifestations of Claggart’s suppressed desires, they work brilliantly – until, like most of Špinar’s metaphors, they go too far, moving front and center in the third act to put on a Cirque du Soleil-style show with the entire crew (including Claggart) watching. That the show is done in slow motion makes it even more excruciating and baffling. 

Christopher Bolduc	(Billy Budd) and Gidon Saks (John Claggart) © Patrik Borecký
Christopher Bolduc (Billy Budd) and Gidon Saks (John Claggart)
© Patrik Borecký

Britten was certainly no stranger to the vicissitudes of homosexuality – in fact, the part of Captain Vere was originally written for his partner, Peter Pears. But sex is not what Britten found interesting about Melville’s eponymous novel, which is primarily a parable of good and evil. Instead, he was intrigued by the moral dilemma that Vere faces after Billy strikes Claggart and accidentally kills him. Does Vere follow regulations and have Billy tried and hung, or does he make allowances for innocent, high-spirited youth? There may be some of that ethical anguish in this production, but it’s difficult to discern amid Vere’s constant come-ons to Billy and ultimate rejection of him, like a spurned lover. Nor does it help that Vere is portrayed as a dandy in a neon-blue suit and powdered wig, robbing his character of any gravitas. 

More than anything, this all amounts to a wasted opportunity, as the other ingredients in the mix are quite good. The singing at the première was uniformly strong, especially from the three leads. In the title role, American baritone Christopher Bolduc showed why he wins one competition after another and was the Metropolitan Opera’s choice for one of the lead roles in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Veteran Slovak tenor Štefan Margita can handle anything thrown his way, and made for a durable Captain Vere. South African bass-baritone Gidon Saks was a menacing Claggart, dark and smoldering from his first notes. 

The chorus surpassed its usual high standards, turning in a commanding performance in rich tones with sharp edges. Even costumes that make them look more like miners than sailors couldn’t detract from the boisterous shanties that carry much of the first half. And the lighting saved a static, minimalist set. Some of Karel Šimek’s effects, like colored spotlights bouncing around the stage, seemed like strained efforts to inject energy into slow-moving scenes. Otherwise, the cool blue-green tones that predominated for most of the evening gave the set a maritime feel, with shifting hues doing an effective job of reflecting the emotions unfolding onstage.

Budd and his shipmates © Patrik Borecký
Budd and his shipmates
© Patrik Borecký

The star of the night was British conductor Christopher Ward, who gave a masterclass in bringing every note and nuance of Britten’s intricate score to life. Powerful atmospherics, dramatic turns in the horns and lower strings and vivid colors from the woodwinds kept the piece moving and provided telling details about the characters and their motivations. Almost always spot-on in the Czech and broader Romantic repertoire, the State Opera Orchestra stepped up a notch in this performance, showing tremendous versatility and what it is capable of in the hands of a highly skilled conductor. 

Britten and Pears visited Prague during a recital tour in 1964 and were said to be greatly impressed by a production of From the House of the Dead they saw at the National Theatre. It’s hard to imagine similar enthusiasm for this lopsided 21st-century Billy Budd