Billy Budd chorus

Billy Budd

Opera North,

Theatre Royal, Nottingham


Billy Budd was Benjamin Britten’s second full-scale opera. The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, both presented by the composer’s own smaller scale English Opera Group, and staged at Glyndebourne, were designed for compacter forces.

Paul Bunyan was conceived, with W. H. Auden, as a (classy) Musical. But Covent Garden commissioned Budd, and this required presentation and orchestration on a much fuller scale, closer to Gloriana, its successor, which followed in Coronation year, 1953.

Opera North, just completing a week at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, has had a run of meaty successes of late (their current Der Rosenkavalier is one), cementing the name of a company that also enjoyed glory days in the 1990s; and this, without a shadow of doubt, was a five star production. It calls for a male chorus of some 30 or so – the crew of the ship Indomitable, and a replete array of officers and ship’s boys or midshipmen and – you name it. 

How to marshal all these around a stage? Irish director Orpha Phelan and her Designer, Leslie Travers (the two worked together on Opera North’s Bellini opera, I Capuleti e I Montecchi; he has overseen half a dozen of their recent productions including the celebrated The Fortunes of King Croesus), produced a superlative answer.

 A curving gangway, almost full stage width, led the way claggart and vereup to the Officers with their telescopes above. A whole section below it was ingeniously turned into the men’s quarters ‘below deck’, complete with hammocks, working miracles with a by no means huge space.

A wealth of stone, or stone-coloured panelled walls provided an amazingly strong neutral backdrops. And the way Phelan moved and blocked the whole cast, subtly, relevantly, slyly, was patently a masterpiece of the director’s art from start to finish.  

Alan Oke as Captain Vere and Alastair Miles as John Claggart, the devilish Master-at-Arms. Pictures: Clive Barda

Add to that the calibre of the singing – E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s superbly finessed, cunningly filleted  libretto demands a mass of small, medium and lead roles – was virtually impossible to fault. The pair introduce a lot of naval terms into the text – ‘Man the braces!’; ‘Beat the quarters’; ‘set royals and sky-rakers’ (the sails). And while it is not essential to capture everything, the words as a whole benefit immensely by being crystal clear. And so they were. The enunciation of principals and chorus alike was immensely rewarding.

We have to understand the context of how Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, comes to make the young – and innocent - Billy Budd seem a dangerous threat: 1797, the year it was set by Melville, is the very year in which a flurry of very serious navy mutinies occurred – at a time when the war with France was still in its early days, and far from predictable.

The Spithead mutiny (April-May) and the – in the naval senior command’s eyes - far more serious coincident Nore mutiny (a sandbank on the Thames off Sheerness and Shoeburyness) could have spelt disaster for the navy. In the former, an accommodation was found and pardons issued. In the latter, numerous perpetrators or participants were hanged, or imprisoned or exiled to the colonies. Rough Justice. But it was not a time when risks could be taken.

The opera started on a strong note, for Alan Oke – once long ago a baritone but now a tenor with a beautifully honed high range, made a superb impression. Captain Vere – who in the end fails to prevent, even promotes, Billy’s execution, is a part written (for Peter Pears) quite high in the range, and Oke, far from sounding like an ‘old man’, sang both his opening prelude and Vere’s final envoi with a strength that belied the idea of a broken man.

Despite his words ‘I could have saved him’, you got the feeling that here, in his snug 1820s – Metternich or Duke of Wellington-era long camel coat, was a man who accepted the outcome which he, in the trial scene, effectively dodged. A man who had lived by the King’s rules, and who accepted the anomaly and distressing outcome that they necessitated.

He can admit ‘I’ve seen many men in my time, and I trust him (Billy) . . . I have studied men and their ways . . . Claggart, John Claggart! Beware! I’m not so easily deceived’ but he can still fail to act, almost immobiloised, when remedial action is needed and leadership demanded.

Yet when on deck, Vere’s stance was strikingly yielding: relaxed, unthreatening, and certainly not self-satisfied. This was skilful: the contrast with the fairly chipper senior billyofficers - Adrian Clarke’s Mr. Flint (Sailing Master) or Callum Thorpe’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe, magnificent in lower registers - was marked. Above all, it provided a perfect riposte to the amazingly controlled, ominous strut of Alistair Miles’s cruel and obnoxious Claggart, who describes Billy as ‘dangerous’ but is in fact himself, with his spies and machinations, the most dangerous man on the ship. A threat to sanity, who – in one of his stupendous arias – reveals that he is conscious of the evil in himself, and thanks to it has lived a kind of ‘Hell’.

Roderick Williams as Billy Budd and Oliver Johnston as the Novice

A word here about the orchestra. Billy Budd needs an especially firm hand to keep all the many leads together – not least in the battle scene launching Act 2– and to lend assurance in a score which is demanding for all, not least the chorus. Oliver Rundell, Opera North’s brand new chorus master, doubtless did a vast amount of work with his sailor charges. Thus they came prepared. But Garry Walker’s conducting (his first for this company), and his lucid leads especially, were quite remarkably managed, with scarcely a single intro not given to the singers, while keeping the orchestra in tow with his right hand, with the result that one sensed absolute confidence in cast and all sections or departments.

The score is riveting to the ear. Britten makes a lot of use of double basses, indeed of all low instruments (trombones, tuba, low bassoon) to make his effects. There is scope for this to become marginally a muddle, or at least, not to speak clear. This never happened. The string sound was marvellous, from the first lulling bars at the start which suggest memory or reverie and open the door to Vere’s reflections. Reliable strings are crucial, as in any opera, but here one just as often sensed them subliminally: overpowering of course in the battle, and rising at several points to unnervingly forceful declamation, but often strikingly effective when kept down and almost suggested. A sure feat of discipline.

Several parts made their mark early on. Not just tenor Oliver Johnston’s stripe-backed, flogged Novice, who will in the later stages become Claggart’s tool and hasten Billy’s downfall; but also his young friend and support (Gavan Ring), who shone vocally and visually at every turn.

When a cutter comes alongside with three impressed men, including Billy, it was cheering to hear another wonderful tenor, Daniel Norman, singing Red Whisker (Joseph Higgins, from Bristol, before the navy stole him); and Arthur Jones, a weaver from Spitalfields (Tim Ochala-Greenough). Norman’s role seemed oddly brief; one wondered if he was also an (extremely desirable) understudy. The put-upon Squeak (David Llewellyn) made a nice job of being the natural on-board victim. Stephen Richardson’s Dansker showed a wisdom and calm that shone especially when he breaks rules and comforts Billy imprisoned in the hold. His Scandinavian beard was rather a showpiece.

Billy, sung by that exquisite baritone Roderick Williams, thanks to the performer’s wide-eyed excitement and sheer cheerfulness, was a delight. True, Williams is arguably old, or oldish, for this role, but his sheer personality shone out. Billy is, to my mind, not sufficiently used in Act I, a possible drawback in the libretto. And though he is cocky at the start, his self-confidence was possibly slightly overdone.

Billy’s great moment is in his aria in scene three near the end, sung when in prison awaiting his end: ‘Look! Through the port comes the moon-shine astray’, which was sung with all the aery beauty with which Britten endows presumably the most significant pure aria in the opera – like an extract from his Nocturne.

Thanks to Thomas C. Hase’s lighting, which picked out everything with extraordidanskernary astuteness and inspiration all through, and worked wonders with threatening shadows, this scene was laden with poignancy. 

Right from the start, when we find the chorus scrubbing the decks under the severe watchful eyes of switch-wielding middle-rankers, one was impressed by the atmosphere the chorus generated.

Stephen Richardson as Dansker and Roderick Williams as Billy Budd the night before Billy is hanged

The way they were got off stage – skilfully – on each occasion was almost as striking. Their acting standards were phenomenally high, whether emerging from their huddles below – every character an individual, and with no lightweight interaction but well-rehearsed interchanges - or simply placed mid- to rearstage as a kind of backdrop to two or three-man officer scenes, to avert any danger of vast bare space behind. Quite brilliant.

The quasi-procession on the return of the flogged novice was another of Orpen’s splendidly conceived sequences. One sea shanty was quite riveting. But the choir’s big moment comes in a massive chorus, or rather series of choruses, as the ship engages the French. The singing, and the commitment, was stupendous.

There aren’t many comic moments in Billy Budd, but one of them is when Vere invites two fellow officers – Flint and Redburn – to join him for a drink. Their deference to him (Do we sit? Do we stand?) was fun, and their later toasts ‘Don’t like the French, their bowing and scraping, their hoppetty-skippety ways, their lingo’ beautifully lucid and witty. Clarke’s Flint was as good as ever in this threesome, but we also here first encountered Mr. Redburn (First Lieutenant), sung by that hugely experienced singer Peter Savidge. 

He would later shine as Chairman of the ill-fated, hesitating three-man court martial which sentenced Billy to death. And the pairing by Britten of two baritones made their jaunty interplay all the more amusing – all sung with pinpoint timing. The officers’ natty dress looked straight out of Gainsborough: Travers’ mixture of white and blue costumes (plus the odd scarlet grenadier) worked wonders throughout: often you felt Phelan’s blocks were directly related to the effective placement and spacing of the blue costumes onstage.   

As for the writing desk and chairs and other paraphernalia, brought on and removed by five or half a dozen lively and vocally pleasing boy Midshipmen (doubling as powder monkeys in the battle scene): they had a vast amount to do, and carried it off with remarkable assurance and aplomb. Someone had rehearsed them to perfection: the orderliness on board HMS Indomitable owed much to their promptness and stylish efficiency.

It would be impossible not to hand the palm, along with Oke’s pensive Vere, to Alistair Miles’s dramatically well judged, late-introduced Claggart (‘A veritable Argos. He has a hundred eyes.’). He has wide experience of playing grim and nasty characters, but his range and the roles he essays to such perfection are vast, and he has depicted every kind of nobleman and villain in virtually all the world’s major houses. One can see why here.

The voice is as withering as the grim upright, stately, almost regal, threatening stance. Every time Miles moved, or simply stood, or slithered up the walkway at a dignified lope to officer level, one simply shivered.

The way he imparted evil was awe-inspiring; not least in his maternal nursing of Billy’s confiscated red neckerchief. And the tension of the soliloquy where he addresses his own culpability, and decides that there is no alternative to vileness and revenge. ‘O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness . . . having seen you, what choice remains to me?’ and finally on his knees, ‘I have you in my power and I would destroy you’. It seems a kind of Aschenbach, and just as articulate, in reverse.

But it is the detail in the music that makes all this intense drama possible. Trombones summoned up for Mr. Flint’s telling early aria. The use of flute – key mellifluous solo instrument – as well as like a fife: no exaggeration, nothing overdone. Contrasted interludes – clarinet, low strings and harp; a later one with flute replacing clarinet. Sneering syncopated horns making Claggart’s approach to Vere the slimier; an especially telling intermezzo, this time with trumpet and pizzicato double bass and xylophone. What sounded like a viola solo consequential upon the Master-at-Arms’s long-awaited demise; angry cellos and tuba uniting as the trial launched, and wan solo harp as the court rises. A sadly supportive solo clarinet for Billy and Dansker during the former’s last moments.

The most amazing interlude of all is a long, adagissimo sequence of (I believe) 34 chords which come close harmonically, one almost dare say, to Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written a couple of years earlier. The whole momentum of the music is dramatically - and incredibly daringly – paused. It’s as if there has been some kind of seismic shift between the prevalence of good and the threat of evil. Or, if one believes in redemption, perhaps the opposite.

Roderic Dunnett



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