Opera review: Billy Budd

Opera North's Billy Budd PIC: CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL
Opera North's Billy Budd PIC: CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL
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With designer Leslie Travers’s shabby-chic set, all curling floorboards and distressed paintwork, director Orpha Phelan’s fine production of Britten’s great nautical tragedy for Opera North placed us firmly inside the mind and regretful memories of the aloof Captain Vere. Which felt only right, given Alan Oke’s quietly commanding performance in the role, the still point around which everything orbited – detached at times, yes, but also tracing a brilliantly believable arc from duty to despair to redemption.

Billy Budd ****

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

There were equally fine performances from Roderick Williams in wonderfully rich voice as a surprisingly sturdy, thoroughly likeable Billy, and Alastair Miles, gratifyingly balanced as the sinister Claggart, deeply unsettling in his manipulations of the young and vulnerable, but far from a panto villain in his struggles with his own deep damage.

Indeed, Phelan’s honest, intelligent production achieves a fine sense of balance with Britten and librettist EM Forster’s homoerotic subtext, never concealing it, but never overplaying it either – instead leaving it to fester under the surface, and to inform both the opera’s warm, seafaring camaraderie and its darker moments.

Two elements really stood out: first, Opera North’s superb chorus, wonderfully roof-raising in the opera’s aborted battle scene but equally eloquent in its ominous opening; and second, Opera North’s equally superb orchestra, which delivered a brilliantly vivid, sharply etched account under conductor Garry Walker, full of surging drama and also moments of exquisite contemplation. This is a glorious, thoughtful production, as strong on technical accomplishment as it is on insight.