If anyone needs to be converted to the operas of Benjamin Britten, they should get tickets to ENO's new production of Billy Budd. Clearly some conversions are necessary - the gallery was only about two thirds full when I went, and that was on Saturday evening. (Of course, it could have been because France was playing Spain in the European Championship, but somehow I doubt it).
Not everyone likes the production, but I found it extremely effective. The problem was obvious - it 'updates' an opera that is very carefully localised in time and place, aboard HMS Indomitable in 1797, when Britain is fighting France. That led to many jarring references to sails (on what had been updated to a modern warship) and the French (given the 20th century look, the enemy ought to have been either the Germans or the Russians), canons (which the director replaced with oil drums), etc.
However, if you managed to ignore these anachronisms, it worked well. For a start the music was written in 1951, so the mid-20th century look suits it very well. More importantly, the implicit references to a totalitarian state - the sets reminiscent of Battleship Potemkin, the able seamen wearing boiler suits with numbers - chimes with the theme of personal and political repression that makes the opera so chilling. If the villain Claggart wants to crush the handsome Billy because he is attracted to him, as is insinuated, that makes more sense in an atmosphere where personal freedom is repressed. Captain De Vere is forced to condemn Billy because he needs to reassert his political power against the threat of mutiny.
The best thing about this staging, though, is that it doesn't get in the way of the opera. The story - which is about the relationships between Claggart, the crew, Billy and De Vere - unfurls with heart-breaking clarity. Billy's execution was unforgettably poignant.
Britten's brilliance is to dramatise big, timeless ideas whilst keeping within a naturalistic framework. Billy Budd is about repression, about good, bad and what lies inbetween, but it deals with them obliquely. One of the most thrilling musical build-ups occurs when HMS Indomitable approaches a French ship. The crew works itself into a frenzy of excitement as it prepares for battle. But then the mist gets in the way and the wind drops. The prospect of a clash with the enemy - which would re-energise the crew's flagging sense of purpose, of right and wrong - disappears. It is back to scheming and bitching below decks.