Billy Budd is the grand finale in Opera North’s Season of Secrets, and it seems they saved the best for last…
It’s fair to say that this was a little different from the operas I’ve seen before. For a start, it was in English, so you can focus your full attention on the stage, which is good, because there’s a hell of a lot going on. This is a beast of an opera, with a huge number of singers on stage, along with drummers and even children at times – and that makes for a spectacular show, especially when their voices come together.
That’s the second thing. This is an all-male opera and the result is spectacular. You move from soft melodic chanting to lively sea shanties and deep, powerful battle cries, with lulls in between to tell the rather complex story of Billy Budd. New to the ship, he soon wins the love of the crew, but he also attracts the hatred of the Master of Arms, Claggart, and thus we embark on a sea-worthy adventure that won’t end well.
I’ll admit, there were times when, even though it was in English, I couldn’t understand what they were saying – I suspect I missed some of the nuances of Forster’s libretto, but it didn’t necessarily detract from the experience. Billy Budd was very much about the music for me, and the action on stage, which told the story even when you didn’t know what they were saying.
I think everyone who was there last night would agree that there were a few standout scenes that made the opera particularly special. You’ve got the sea shanty, sung as the sailors muck about on deck, stripping topless to fight each other, and yes, making rude gestures with a rope – don’t knock it, it was very funny.
That was topped only by the battle scene. There were over 60 people on stage during this scene, and you got a real sense of the chaos of war, as they take their positions shouting to the enemy with undisguised excitement. In this scene, not only are their voices at their most powerful, but the action on stage is absolutely mesmerising. So when the canons exploded into action, I jumped, even though I knew it was coming.
There was one more scene I feel the need to tell you about. It wasn’t the biggest or the loudest, but it’s one of my personal favourites. Captain Vere gathers Mr Redburn and Mr Flint in his quarters, they set out on something of a rant, and you couldn’t help but smile as they repeated again and again, in an oh-so British way, “Don’t like the French’. Comedy gold – Peter Savidge and Adrian Clarke get a special mention for that one.
The stage deserves an almighty mention too, because it tells a story in itself. The action you see on stage is actually told through the memories of Captain Vere, so we open on an old man in a distressed room. Once he’s introduced us to the story, the wall behind him is lifted above the stage to reveal a room, in which lies a decrepit ship, broken down over the years.
It’s impressive to behold, both realistic and fantastical, with curved surfaces sweeping down onto the stage and crooked edges creating ominous shadows. Seriously, kudos to Set and Costume Designer, Leslie Travers, he outdid himself here.
Quick heads up – from this point on, you get spoilers. Billy Budd is a tragic tale and I came in expecting to be all choked up for the guy – but I wasn’t. That wasn’t a failing by the opera or its stars – Roderick Williams did an amazing job in the lead, making the audience love his character as much as the sailors do on stage, but it was Alan Oke’s Captain Vere who I found myself empathising with.
When he has to decide Billy’s fate, I’m with him all the way. Honestly? I think he made the right decision. Billy may be good, Claggart may be bad, but at the end of the day, he killed a man – and even good men shouldn’t get away with murder.
Bill Budd is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 29th October 2016. Book your tickets now.