Review: Billy Budd (Leeds Grand Theatre and tour)

Opera North launches a rousing new production of Britten’s seafaring opera

Alan Oke as Captain Vere and Alastair Miles as C|aggart in Billy Budd (Opera North)
Alan Oke as Captain Vere and Alastair Miles as Claggart in Billy Budd (Opera North)
© Clive Barda 2016

ENO was famed for its 'powerhouse' years back in the 80s, and more recently the former chancellor, George Osborne, flew a kite for a 'northern powerhouse'. Maybe he was right, because the cap fits snugly at Opera North.

The Leeds-based touring outfit enjoyed a remarkable track record throughout the Richard Farnes era, now sadly over, and it isn't done yet. Which other UK company would dare to include not one but two monster operas in the same tour—and then do them this well?

Der Rosenkavalier is a huge undertaking, brilliantly achieved, and so is this new Billy Budd from director Orpha Phelan. And what shrewd planning to programme Britten's all-male nautical epic alongside Puccini's Suor Angelica, which the company is also touring in a double bill with Il tabarro. Holy orders for the ladies of the chorus, a life on the ocean wave for the men.

Herman Melville's tragedy of moral ambivalence and perverted desire aboard the HMS Indomitable is a powerful subject for a grand opera, and neither Britten nor his librettists (Eric Crozier and EM Forster) stinted on its epic nature, both physical and emotional. Starry-eyed Billy catches the attention of evil Master-at-Arms Claggart who, since he can't have him, determines to destroy him.

The stumbling block in Phelan's staging is its visual concept. Just as David McVicar's Rosenkavalier unfolds within the ornate crumbling walls of the Marschallin's mind, so the seafaring Billy Budd is confined to the same expressionistic cliché, this time the ascetic crumbling walls of Captain Vere's mind. But why? The old sea dog may frame the opera by reflecting on bygone events, but he's out of the picture for the greater part of the opera and it's the psychological clash between Billy and Claggart that drives the action, not him.

'Great theatre combined with superb music-making'

That flaw aside, this is a majestic Billy Budd and designer Leslie Travers has worked miracles of spatial economy with it, not least by breaking the fourth wall in a literal way after Vere has done so figuratively.

It's expressively conducted by Garry Walker (although he injects insufficient energy into the 'wine' scene) and as expertly played by the Orchestra of Opera North as it is sung and acted by the prodigious cast. Roderick Williams, a national treasure of a baritone, exceeds all expectation in the title role. Britten requires Billy to run a vast emotional gamut; Williams has its measure throughout.

Alastair Miles is the Claggart of nightmares, baleful and inscrutable, while Alan Oke captures the tortured devastation of Vere as well as anyone I've seen. With a cast of well-weathered salts that includes Peter Savidge, Aled Hall, Daniel Norman and Stephen Richardson, and with Oliver Johnston and Gavan Ring on hand for a lacerating scene as the flayed Novice and his Friend, it's an overwhelming experience. The Chorus of Opera North is outstanding, as are the boys who double as midshipmen and powder monkeys, and Phelan's stagecraft is mostly first-rate.

The only false note is struck by Billy's attack on Claggart. The audience hooted at the second performance—as, I hear, it did at the first—and understandably so. It urgently needs a rethink. That aside, this unmissable Billy Budd is great theatre combined with superb music-making, and it adds a new jewel to the crown of Opera North. Where would English opera be without this bold, expertly managed powerhouse? We probably know. Counting beans in a boardroom.

Billy Budd runs in repertory in Leeds until 29 October, then tours to Newcastle, Salford Quays, Nottingham and Edinburgh until 3 December.