All-round Excellence from Opera North in new Billy Budd

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Billy Budd: Soloists and Chorus of Opera North / Garry Walker (conductor),  Grand Theatre, Leeds, 21.10.2016. (JL)

Alan Oke (Captain Vere) and Alastair Miles (John Claggart) (c) Clive Barda

Captain Vere – Alan Oke
Billy Budd – Roderick Williams
John Claggart – Alastair Miles
Mr Redburn – Peter Savidge
Mr Flint – Adrian Clarke
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Callum Thorpe
Red Whiskers – Daniel Norman
Donald – Eddie Wade
Dansker – Stephen Richardson
Novice  – Oliver Johnston
Novice’s Friend – Gavan Ring
Squeak  – David Llewellyn
Bosun – Jeremy Peaker
First Mate – Paul Gibson
Second Mate – Nicholas Butterfield
Maintop – Aled Hall
Arthur Jones – Tim Ochala-Greenough
Children – Cormac Keating, Tobias McDonald, James Slingsby, Jakub Packo, Daniel Simpson, Lucas Walker

Director – Orpha Phelan
Set and Costume Designer – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Movement Director  – Lynne Hockney

Many people regard Herman Melville’s novella,  Billy Budd,  as a literary masterpiece and many people, likewise, view Benjamin Britten’s opera based on it as a masterpiece, too.  It is not often that  the same narrative succeeds so well in both genres. Verdi’s Otello, drawn closely from Shakespeare, comes to mind but not a great deal else.  For an operatic adaptation to succeed in this way, a great composer is not enough.  An outstanding librettist is also a requirement. Verdi had Arrigo Boito who was both a substantial literary figure and a composer who understood theatrical demands. Britten was lucky enough to have a double act that represented both these skills. E. M. Forster was a novelist of genius and Eric Crozier was a man of great theatrical experience and understanding.

The novella posed problems of interpretation for the librettists. Is it a battle between good (Billy the sailor) and evil  (Claggart, Master at Arms) or is it more to do with tensions between the innocence of Billy the “Beauty”  and  the jealous, homo-erotic  sadistic  tendencies of Claggart?  In either case the unfortunate Captain Vere is caught in the middle faced with deciding which side wins out.  As might be expected  with Forster and Britten,  both being homosexual, the opera tends towards the latter. Whether such interpretation matters is a moot point bearing in mind the deeper issues raised by Melville’s work. Crozier put this well after he had read the novella at Britten’s  request and said the subject  “describes a quality of extension from the story – that you start with real characters, with human characters, which are then extended onto other planes of significance”. And Forster declared that the story, “reaches back into the universal”. As it happens,  in this excellent new production, whatever  homo-eroticism  there  is, is  not emphasised but simply left to the text and for the audience to decide.

The opera opens with Captain Vere as an old man  looking back on the events  which brought him to sentence Billy to hang for striking and killing (unintentionally)  a superior. “Oh what have I done!” he cries, still racked with guilt. Alan Oke, who will be known to Britten devotees as a distinguished interpreter of the composer’s tenor roles, was a movingly sung Vere. His dilemma over the sentencing of Billy, how to do the right thing,  is at the intellectual heart of the opera. What is the right thing? he acted this effectively by conveying a kind of mental and physical paralysis.

The character of the Captain is offset by the congenitally nasty Master of Arms,  John Claggart. There is an inherent problem with the role: how to convey menace without crossing  into  Sweeny Todd country with  stereotypical, farcical villainy. It’s a thin line easily crossed, but Alastair Miles managed to stop short – only just. Incidentally, it is Britten who nearly defaults here  by writing occasionally, in his own words, “nice dark music for Claggart.” Vocally strong, Miles paradoxically gets one of the loveliest soliloquies in the opera which he sang beautifully while  at the same time conveying the inner turmoil of the character.

To the casual music lover Roderick Williams may be known for his rendering of Rule Britannia a couple of years ago at the Last Night of The Proms in London, a coveted annual slot televised worldwide.  In fact he has a wide repertoire as a baritone that includes admired lieder singing that stood him in good stead as Billy. His strongest point was a youthful physicality that expressed an innocent joie de vivre and engaging openness of character. This is a man who does not let anything get him down. Even faced with what he regards as an unjust death, he is capable of the  forgiveness that provides the guilt-ridden Vere a form of redemption.

Roderick Williams (Billy Budd) with members of the Chorus of Opera North (c) Clive Barda

In addition to the three main characters there is a range of important secondary roles. All were sung and acted with distinction. Each have their moments but also have to cope with multiple ensemble groupings and to deal with music of  bewildering rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. Ever present is the crew in the form of  a large male chorus. I have a London friend who, earlier this year saw Opera North’s much praised Wagner Ring cycle. So impressed was he by the power of the company’s male chorus in Götterdammerung he felt compelled to make the pilgrimage North to Leeds to see them again in Billy Budd. He was not disappointed. At one point the total male cast of around 50 was on stage and the sound packed an almighty, roof-lifting punch.

The orchestra, led by Garry Walker, played splendidly. Britten demands from  his large orchestral forces a range of textures and effects beyond anything he had attempted before. It is an astonishing score that requires careful handling to do the composer justice. Justice was done although there was the odd occasion when singers had difficulty overriding the volume. This is a common problem, in my experience, early in a performance run and is usually put right in due course.

Sets and productions generally can be matters of taste but I thought this one served the opera well. Costumes were in keeping with the  navy of Nelson so there was no doubt where we were and when. I have seen Billy Budd  productions where the stage is littered with the clutter of naval symbols such as rigging and lots of coiled rope, capstans and the like. Here there is little of that apart from the hammocks in which the crew sleep (offering a challenge to  chorus members  in getting into one without mishap). The elegantly designed set has reference to gangways  and is layered in such a way as to replicate the brutal hierarchical nature of life on board a British Man o’ War, from the lower deck to the quarter deck, the domain of the Captain.

Movement was handled skilfully with good balance between vigorous bustle and more static set pieces. There were  sub groupings on stage at times  that were arranged to offer some aesthetically pleasing tableaux.

This is a production that well serves one of the greatest masterpieces of British opera.

 John Leeman

After Leeds, the production tours to Newcastle upon Tyne, Salford, Nottingham and Edinburgh. (

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