Seen at The Lowry, Salford;
at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,
December 1 & 3
Reviewed by Mark Brown
As Scotland’s performing arts scene prepares to adorn itself with baubles and wrap itself in tinsel, Leeds-based Opera North offer us a final chance to see some high-quality, non-Christmassy fare before the theatrical festivities take over our theatres entirely. In truth, however, this exceptional production of Benjamin Britten’s masterwork Billy Budd (which alternates in this programme with a Puccini double bill of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica) is an early Christmas gift to opera lovers.
Based upon American writer Herman Melville’s final work, an unfinished novella, Billy Budd is a hugely accomplished, genuinely captivating work of musical drama. Boasting a libretto by the great novelist E.M. Forster and longstanding Britten collaborator Eric Crozier, it tells the story of a handsome, somewhat diffident young man who is, fatefully, forced into the service of the late 18th-century British Navy by a press-gang.
Unusually among the men, who are kept in place by a brutal regime that includes arbitrary and vicious floggings, Budd delights in his maritime adventure. As decent and kind as he is beautiful, he is universally adored, by officers and his fellow sailors alike.
Adored by all, that is, except the malevolent master-at-arms John Claggart, in whom adoration quickly turns into a demonic compulsion to destroy Budd.
The nature of Claggart’s obsession was coyly overlooked by the critics when the opera premiered in its original, four-act version in 1951 and, again, when it was restaged in this, improved, two-act incarnation in 1960. It could hardly have been otherwise. Male homosexuality remained illegal in England and Wales until 1967.
However, it is obvious to the 21st-century sensibility that Claggart’s soul is being eaten away by his repression of his own desires. Indeed, it would be naive to think that the general appreciation of Budd in this all-male society is based merely on admiration of his moral character.
Orpha Phelan’s magnificent production of the opera puts a sensitive, but very definite, emphasis on the homoerotic dimension of the piece. With the assistance of Leslie Travers’s extraordinary, deceptively versatile set (which opens out from a huge, decaying grey house), Phelan also emphasises the libretto’s great innovation on Melville’s story; namely, the unfolding of the narrative from within the guilt-stricken memory of the retired captain of the HMS Indomitable, Edward Fairfax Vere.
Vere is played with tremendous moral stature by the excellent tenor Alan Oke. His is an agonising predicament, as is he is torn, like an English Pontius Pilate, between his own sense of justice and his adherence to a rigid system of hierarchy in which Claggart’s seniority holds sway over Budd’s innocence.
Claggart, in turn, is performed with an oppressive, almost reptilian self-loathing by the superb bass Alastair Miles. Indeed, although Miles plays the role with moral complexity and emotional depth, there is enough of the pantomime villain in his performance to ensure that he was booed while taking his bows in Salford.
Budd himself is a difficult character to portray. Outstanding baritone Roderick Williams captures absolutely the man’s almost childlike humanity, but also his Christ-like qualities of goodness, beauty and, ultimately, submission to persecution.
Britten’s impressive score nods, tantalisingly, towards modernist discordance. Appropriately, it comes in waves, ranging from the lull of personal contemplation to the great crescendos of sea battle and moral conflict.
The powerful male chorus seizes its numerous opportunities for vocal grandeur, just as Travers’s designs produce great moments of visual spectacle. All-in-all, as complete and inspiring a rendering of this great opera as one could wish for.
For details of the performances of Billy Budd and the Puccini double bill, visit: operanorth.co.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 27, 2016
© Mark Brown