Composer: Benjamin Britten
Librettist: E.M.Forster &Eric Crozier after the story by Herman Melville
Director: Orpha Phelan
Conductor: Garry Walker
Reviewer: Charlotte Broadbent
Opera North has assembled an incredibly varied season this autumn; firstly Strauss, then Britten and finally Puccini. This attests to the wealth of talent that Opera North boats as well as the versatility of its members and the ambition of its directors. Billy Budd is second in the line-up and is a lovely contrast to the other works.
Based on the Herman Melville story of the same name, the hero Billy Budd is brought onto the ship Indomitable and made a member of the crew. Some early comments from Budd raise a few concerns as crew members suspect he could be alluding to some revolutionary sympathies. This is brushed off and Budd soon becomes a valued crew member. However, the master-at-arms, Mr Claggart, harbours a deep mistrust of Budd and immediately sets against him. It could be all in the name of protecting his shipmates and the war against France but a later aria gives way to some more personal and sensitive feeling of Mr Claggart’s that pose another potential source of his defensiveness.
While there is certainly a decent plot here, overall the production is fairly thin on action. It seems to reach a natural denouement 20 minutes before the end. The chorus, as ever sounds and looks fantastic and, when they are on stage in full force, their energy lights up the room, most notably at the top of act two when the Indomitable attempts an attack on an enemy ship. Otherwise, the pace lags a touch… Of course, there are more dramatic and contemplative moments in the story but the energy falters and the show is overall less captive in these scenes.
The orchestra is generally wonderful and assuredly led by Garry Walker. It’s rare that in an opera we are afforded an opportunity to praise the saxophonist but Rob Buckland really stands out. The standard of singing is good with most of the leads maintaining clarity and rich tones. A surprisingly memorable and tender moment occurs early on between the novice (Oliver Johnstone) and his friend (Gavan Ring). After the novice has been flogged, a beautiful duet between the two, supported by the chorus, is sung with great sensitivity, a moment that’s delicate and truly touching. Alan Oke’s combined authority with wisdom and compassion as captain Vere creates a rich and intricate character. Roderick Williams has a naivety and optimism as Billy Budd, a combination that is both endearing and devastating by the end.
Britten’s music is haunting and unique and an evening listening to his music is a pleasure. The performance standard is high and it’s clearly a well considered and detailed directorial effort. However, with large gaps in the story where the plot fails to move on, and with a run time of three hours including the interval, there is a sense of dragging towards the end. All in all an enjoyable but flawed performance of a rarely seen opera.
Reviewed on 10 November 2016 then touring | Image: Clave Barda