The staging of Opera North’s little shown Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten with libretto by E.M Forster and Eric Crozier, taken from Herman Melville’s original novella, is very spectacular. We have imposing war blasted grey walls containing a big metallic structure symbolising the interior of a British Royal naval vessel – HMS The Indomitable – at the end of the 18th Century. Set and costume design are by Leslie Travers. The direction of the piece is visually very creative and we get the impression of an extraordinarily tough life for all the mariners at sea off to fight the French. This is fine, except once the ship sets sail we have no indication of seafaring motion. They might as well all be singing beautifully in a rather unusual blown up mansion. Even some projected hint of clouds scudding by may have brought a touch more realism to the piece. In retrospect the angled lifting of the initial front wall could be giving an impression of sails being hoisted. Maybe.
In the second act we have more spectacular effects with deafening cannon fire and flashes and the novice’s first act flogging make up is particularly grisly. Travers attention to detail in the costume designs is admirable.
Photo Credit: © Clive Barda
The operatic drama seems rather slow to unfold for this reviewer used to the structure and pace of plays. It becomes obvious for this first time opera goer that a different kind of engagement and listening is involved. The classical music story is full of its own kind of operatic drama with terrific top class singing and acting from the principles and the thirty six strong all male company.
Unfathomable ambiguity and guilt seem to be the central emotional themes by which everything else is driven. Quite why John Claggart (Alistair Miles) the cruel Master At Arms hates the youthful optimistic – full of goodness – Billy Budd (Roderick Williams) so much that he wants him dead is unclear. The informative programme notes hint (and it is the merest of hints never absolute) at Claggart’s latent homosexual denial of himself and his unwillingness to offer Billy friendship and love – unlike the ship’s Captain Vere (Alan Oke). This hard man thinking turns his emotional core around to the very opposite of love, that of human obliteration. We witness parallels with Jesus Christ’s betrayal when Claggart bullies the terrified novice (Oliver Johnston) offering him pieces of silver coin to get Billy to sing of mutinous thoughts amongst his many friends in the ship’s crew. In a cruel twist of fate both men die and unwanted actions have to be followed through to the very bitter end where a state of forgiveness ends the story.
Britten’s music is very evocative of the sea and the sound of sea shanties transferred into operatic form is often the subtle heart of the piece balanced by high operatic drama on the not so high seas in this top quality production directed by Orpha Phelan and conducted by Garry Walker.
Reviewer: Phil Lowe