Billy Budd

Music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier (after the story by Herman Melville)
Opera North
The Lowry (Lyric Theatre)

Roderick Williams as Billy Budd with members of the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Clive Barda

It is 1797 and his Majesty, King George III’s navy is at war with the French. The man o’war, Indomitable, receives three press-ganged men, including one Billy Budd.

Unlike the others, Billy is delighted to be pressed into his Majesty’s service. He is already an able-seaman, has ambitions to serve and win promotion and is soon a favourite with the other sailors. An innocent optimist, they nickname him ‘Baby Budd’. Alas for him, the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart takes against him, and is soon plotting his downfall.

From the accolades this evening, it is clear that many of tonight’s audience adore this opera. So, let me get the “blasphemy” out of the way, right at the start.

Insofar as opera can be thought of as a dramatic art form, I think Billy Budd is a deeply flawed piece of work. I don’t feel moved to weep (or even care much) for the fate of Billy and the burden of guilt carried by Captain Edward Fairfax Vere for his part in that death.

The original, 1951, version of the opera came in four acts but, by 1960, Britten had revised it down to two acts, with a prologue and epilogue (in which the elderly Vere reflects upon the events of 1797).

This curtailed version may well have helped the work become established in the operatic repertory, but has also left us to rely on being told about (rather than shown) the virtues of ‘Starry Vere’, his love for his crew and theirs for him. Yes, he reads Plutarch, which bemuses his officers but is hardly enough to establish him as a prince among men.

The character of Billy also feels underwritten—but maybe I’m just a cold-hearted critic, who belongs with the Claggarts and Squeaks of this world… (Incidentally, one can’t help but wonder whether the implication that Claggart’s hatred for Billy stems from his own repressed homosexuality was as clear to audiences in the '50s and early '60s as it seems to be in 2016.)

Having got that off my chest, let me say that none of this is, or is meant to be, criticism of Opera North’s outstanding production.

In a chain of artistic contributions which is without weak links, let it be noted that the anchors are conductor Garry Walker and chorus master Oliver Rundell. The ON orchestra admirably underpins and punctuates the clarity of the vocalists, whilst the chorus provides the most persuasive and powerful passages in the opera. At times, it seems as though the poetry of the ocean has flooded into the Lowry’s Lyric theatre tonight.

Leslie Travers’s set moves us, elegantly and efficiently, from the elderly Captain’s home to the main-deck and quarterdeck of the Indomitable—the front wall of the house, lifting and pivoting to form the battle-worn main sail of the man o’ war. A graceful sweep of the set leads the eye from the main deck, where the press-ganged ratings toil, to the bridge and its immaculately presented officers. Below decks, where the ordinary seamen rest and sleep, is upstage right, directly beneath the officers’ feet.

Thomas C Hase makes a masterful job of lighting, exploiting the shadows offered by Travers’s set to full effect, drawing the eye to key elements, capturing and enhancing the mood. At one point, the villainous Claggart’s shadow rises and prowls in a manner redolent of F W Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).

Alan Oke’s weary yet restless elder Vere gives way to his younger self, whose stillness and authority bespeaks both a philosophising depth and the calm of a seasoned naval warrior.

Roderick Williams gives us a richly-voiced, warm and athletic Billy, though it is not easy to believe in his ability to overpower the impressive build of Donald Norman’s Red Whiskers, even in good-natured wrestling.

Alastair Miles makes an assured and imposing John Claggart, earning the boos that now seem a standard accolade for operatic villains.

It is never hard to read this tale as a religious allegory, with Billy a naive Jesus, Claggart the Judas who pretends to love him but betrays him, and Vere as Pilate. This production chooses to accentuate the sacred allusions of the text; a spotlight from on high presenting Billy’s execution almost as an ascension. Make what you will of that.

Despite my reservations about the work itself—shared by few or none tonight, I’d hazard—this is another triumph for Opera North. if you love Britten, I have no doubt you’ll love this.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson