Benjamin Britten, libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the novella by Herman Melville
Opera North and Nederlandse Reisopera
Leeds Grand Theatre
First performed in 1951, Billy Budd is widely regarded as Benjamin Britten’s greatest achievement for the stage. If Opera North’s current production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica (1917) showcases the talents of their female performers, then their new staging of Billy Budd—the company’s first in nearly 25 years—gives the male ensemble an opportunity to shine.
E M Forster and Eric Crozier's libretto for Billy Budd sticks closely to the plot of Herman Melville’s original novella, which was left unfinished when the author died in 1891. Set on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797—four years after war broke out between Britain and France—the opera dramatizes the conflict between good and evil as embodied in the characters of the young sailor Billy Budd (Roderik Williams) and the poisonous master-at-arms John Claggart (Alastair Miles). Enraged by Billy's beauty and innate goodness, Claggart becomes hell-bent on destroying him at all costs.
When Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny in front of Captain Edward Vere (Alan Oke), the young sailor begins to stammer and—out of sheer frustration—deals his accuser a lethal blow. Vere convenes an immediate court-martial where the presiding officers find Billy guilty and sentence him to death.
Melville’s novella has been the focus of intense academic speculation since its publication, particularly the root of Claggart’s mysterious hatred for Billy. Some critics have suggested that Claggart is motivated by repressed homosexual desire. Similarly, there is a theory which postulates that Captain Vere is reticent to intercede on Billy’s behalf because he is bewildered by his feelings for the young man. Orpha Phelan’s robust production accommodates such interpretations, but does not impose them upon the audience.
Billy Budd is dominated by three strong central characters. As Captain Vere, Alan Oke movingly captures the spiritual torment of a man who is torn between his sense of duty and his conscience. Alastair Miles gives a menacing performance as Claggart, skilfully conveying the character’s deep-seated hatred of Billy.
Roderik Williams is outstanding in the title role, managing to embody Billy’s virtue without making him a dullard. He captures the character’s joie de vivre in the early scenes—particularly in an impromptu wrestling match—and arouses our sympathies in the second act.
This production is filled with memorable supporting turns. As Mr Redburn and Mr Flint, Peter Savidge and Adrian Clarke inject much-needed levity into the production with their spirited rendition of "Don’t Like the French!". David Llewelyn is suitably rodent-like as Squeak, the corporal who tries to steal from Billy.
The rest of the cast make a pleasingly gnarled and boisterous crew, conveying both the back-breaking drudgery of life at sea and the pleasures of male comradeship. Their choral singing provides many of the production’s most transcendent moments.
The power dynamic of the HMS Indomitable is made clear by Leslie Travers’s striking two-tiered set design, in which the officers dominate the upper deck while the seamen occupy the space underneath.
The weakest aspect of this production is the staging of Claggart’s death, which prompted laughter from some audience members. This is unfortunate given the high calibre of the production. That said, it’s a tall order to make the killing look convincing as we’re asked to believe that a man might be dispatched by a single punch; one might argue that the blame lies with Herman Melville.
The orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, played beautifully, capturing the light and shade of Britten’s ambitious score.
Orpha Phelan's stirring production lives up to the high standards set by Opera North's recent stagings of Der Rosenkavalier, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica in what has been an impressive season for the company.
Reviewer: James Ballands