Archive | November, 2016

Powerful Opera North Billy Budd

4 Nov

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance of Billy Budd.  Rather like Janacek, which is slightly dodgy box office, you have to want to do it.  Opera North’s latest production, which I saw at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 3 September is no exception and was, indeed, one of the two or three most shattering that I’ve seen.

The central performance here was Alan Oke’s Vere which, for me, eclipsed Philip Langridge.  I will not forget the sheer agony that he conveyed during and after the trial – something which turned him from the academic, rather remote figure into someone who had to engage in life and death and who got it wrong.  At that moment, you realised that the opera is about Vere and his journey.  The picture of him sitting, awkwardly askew, face line with doubt and sadness is one of the most haunting that I’ve seen.  Oke sang beautifully, the words clear, perfectly weighted, sounding not unlike Pears.  I’m not saying that it would come across so strongly in a larger theatre – it sounded to me as though he was tiring towards the end – but that isn’t the point.  It was a riveting, moving performance that, quite rightly, led to a moment’s silence at the end.

The rest were pretty good too.  The problem with Billy Budd is that people tend to cast it with young singers who aren’t always ready musically for it.  Roderick Williams still has the looks in spades to convey the youth, enthusiasm and charisma of the role combined with the vocal experience to do it musical justice.  I don’t think I’ve heard the role sung more simply before: the scene in the darbies was simply him with the thoughts coming out spontaneously, softly, effortlessly.  It’s an original, un-operatic, absolutely direct approach and I found myself listening and following as rarely before.  Again, the intimate theatre helped.

Alastair Miles was Claggart.  He sang it magnificently: the darkness of the voice is ideal and he sings the words clearly, incisively.  Vocally it’s ideal casting.  Dramatically, I was slightly less certain.  He has a slightly aristocratic figure and I wasn’t quite sure that he got the sheer vicious thuggishness of the role – having said that, the scene with the novice and with Budd himself were terrifying.  At the confrontation, the smirk on his face, as he stepped forward, goading Budd was outstanding.

Orla Phelan’s production begins in a faded 18th century room with the ship becoming part of that set, as if reminding you that this is Vere’s story.  Leslie Travers’s set is strong, though I think it might have looked a bit less cramped on a larger stage.  Within it she does not shirk the sheer brutality of life on the ship, the worry about mutiny and the fact that the officers are only just able to control the men.  She creates the images, the confrontations beautifully and let’s the work speak for itself.

The other roles are all strongly taken – Peter Savidge predictably fine as Redburn with Callum Thorpe and Adrian Clarke as Ratcliffe and Flint adroitly stressing the social differences between them and Vere.  Oliver Johnston was really good as the novice and Gavan Rang as his friend more than made his mark.  Stephen Richardson got all the cynicism and honesty of Dansker.

It’s not the easiest of operas.  I was aware during the first act that it’s long and that, probably, you could knock ten minutes from it.  The text stands up pretty well, though I have huge problems with the redemption piece at the end: it works because Britten’s music is so persuasive and powerful rather than because of the text.  Garry Walker’s conducting demonstrated the full power of it.  There were times when I think slightly faster tempi might have helped, particularly in the first half.  Elsewhere, however, he built up the climaxes and paced the confrontations as well as you could hope.  The orchestra and chorus were on their very best Ring form.

The second act  for me was one of those experiences where you simply had to let the music and production take you forward and slowly coil up to the climax at the end, watching helplessly at the tragedy and the raw honesty of the performances.  At the end, I felt wrung out, shattered as you should after this opera.  It may not quite match my memories of Graham Vick’s Scottish Opera production in the 1980s or the sheer imagination of Alden’s for ENO but this got the power of this marvellous opera and left you shaken, thoughtful and moved.  Please go.

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