Friday 18 November 2016

Billy Budd at Opera North, or, The Power of Cumulative Effects

To me, Billy Budd is one of the great operas and I've been lucky to see some outstanding performances including the Albery ENO production and the more recent Grandage production at Glyndebourne. But I am always grateful for an opportunity to see it again, for repeated viewings so far have only confirmed its power to me. This strong evening at Opera North was not an exception.

This Budd is directed by Orpha Phelan. I had previously seen a semi-staging of hers at the Barbican  but nothing else. She takes a straightforward approach with a curving upper railed balcony for the officers, space for the men underneath that, an open area in front which with small changes to lighting and furnishings doubles for the variety of other onboard settings. Finally she encloses the whole in decaying grey walls – the house, or perhaps somewhere else inside Vere's mind where he struggles with his regrets. Visually it isn't as totally satisfying a production as were the Albery and Grandage ones but it still works perfectly well, and, especially in Act Two, Phelan reveals other gifts which I rate exceedingly highly. Firstly, and this was especially apparent from the luxury of the Stalls, she has worked effectively with many of the individual performers to craft detailed characterisations. This is already brought out for Redburn (Peter Savidge) and Flint (Adrian Clarke) in their Act One scene with Vere – their “Don't like the French” duet is masterful. But it builds to new and powerful heights in the trial scene. Here Phelan and her performers really capture the sense of entrapment. Redburn's horror when ordered to preside is palpable, as is the desperation in their final plea to Vere to assist them. Phelan also makes the unusual decision to include a small amount of movement alongside the famous sequence of chords describing Vere informing Budd of the verdict. The cabin (formed by a wall of male bodies) dissolves and a tortured Vere stares upstage where we can just see Budd sitting with his back to us. Then, slowly, he goes over and sits down alongside. To me, it was a simple, powerful piece of movement which complimented, indeed reinforced the music.

But the most stunning sequence came in the following Billy in the Darbies scene. Roderick Williams (Budd) first brought the tears to my eyes in his solo – very softly sung but making virtually every word tell. Phelan has made the way Williams moves his arms earlier a key aspect of his physical character, and the remembrance of that makes his physical entrapment (arms now tied behind his back) extremely powerful. But when Stephen Richardson's Dansker comes to bid farewell I found the emotional effect almost overwhelming. Again, this is a consequence of how the character is directed earlier – very still, contained, emotionally restrained. As a result when Dansker breaks down here, almost it seemed to me in this reading in a kind of horrified despair and at the same time revealing how deeply he has come to care for Budd, the effect is remarkable – perhaps nowhere more so than when he throws his arms around his friend. As a postscript, I also appreciated the way Dansker stands aside from the threatened mutiny, his back to the audience, staring fixedly up at where we imagine the hung Billy to be - one element of the very effective mix of movement and stillness in those final moments.

I would quibble about two other elements of the production. In Act One I think the use of the noose is overdone and unnecessary. In Act Two I'm afraid, despite other critics pointing this out earlier in the run, the striking down of Claggart still doesn't look convincing.

I suspect one of the reasons Budd isn't done as often as I think it should be is the expense. Not only do you need an augmented men's chorus, but there are a plethora of smaller roles all of which need to be well taken for the overall effect to succeed. There are virtually no throwaway lines here. Fortunately Opera North successfully meets the challenge. If I were to quibble I could say that I have heard one or two of these smaller roles taken that bit more finely, but it is a question of small margins, and the performers here are never less than very good. In addition to those already mentioned Oliver Johnstone's Novice, Gavan Ring's Novice's Friend (their little exchange after the flogging is movingly done), Daniel Norman's Red Whiskers, Eddie Wade's Donald and Callum Thorpe's Lieutenant Ratcliffe are all finely done. As I've said on other occasions, Budd finally depends musically on the three central roles. Here Williams's Budd is unquestionably up there with the best of them – he brings a lovely physicality to the role alongside vocal richness. Alastair Miles's Claggart is strongly sung but perhaps doesn't quite find that darkness that Phillip Ens brought to the last Glyndebourne production. Alan Oke (Vere) sounded like he might have been struggling a bit with a cold. He found many telling moments in the punishing role, and successfully contrasted the old with the younger man (which not all Veres I've seen have managed) but there were one or two signs of strain. One other factor bears mentioning here – putting over the detail of Forster and Crozier's libretto is crucial to the success of the piece. Opera North take the risk of not using supertitles. Fortunately, the collective diction comes near as makes no difference to being flawless. The singers are ably supported by outstanding work from the Opera North Chorus and Orchestra under the direction of Garry Walker. His account of the score is not perhaps as complete as Elder's at Glyndebourne – he didn't quite find the same feeling of revelation that Elder got in Vere's sighting of the distant sail at the end – but it is overall a very fine account.

Opera North deserves credit for taking this on tour, it must be a bit of a risk, and it was great to see the Theatre Royal Nottingham so full. The final performances take place in Edinburgh in early December. If you've never seen this extraordinary work, or even if you are a veteran of many performances, this should be added to your list. I've known some critics who seem to think that a performance making you cry is a bad thing, I have always believed the complete opposite. For that reason alone, I rank this performance very high, and particularly so in a year in which such emotionally powerful opera in London has been thin on the ground. Catch it if you can.

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