Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House
Benjamin Britten’s nautical saga based on Herman Melville’s final novella is a grand and epic opera with a modest allegory of good versus evil at its heart.
Billy Budd returns to the Royal Opera House under the command of acclaimed British director Deborah Warner. The libretto by EM Forster and Eric Crozier chronicles the tale of young seaman Billy Budd (Jacques Imbrailo), who has been impressed onto the battleship HMS Indomitable, and under the watchful eye of his Master-of-Arms, John Claggart (Brindley Sherratt), becomes the innocent enemy target and point of obsession. The elderly Captain Edward Vere sits alone onstage when the narrative opens on the unfolding events during the 1797 French Revolutionary wars.
Innovative and breathtaking production design by Michael Levine creates the feeling of being at sea, with the levelled stage hoisted through ropes – its straight lines evoking the strictness and exactitude of the Navy – along with canvas sails and a watery feature, which the men wade through at interims. While the crew work, they are subject to arbitrary physical violence by Claggart – or “Jemmy-Legs” as the shipmates privately refer to him – and who becomes a point of contention with the men. Sherratt’s naval officer is a dominating sly figure, appointing others to lure Billy into a mutiny, menacing with his deep-throated bass vocals, and obsessed with Billy’s “beauty, handsomeness and goodness”, vowing to destroy him. The irrational hatred toward the foundling can potentially be construed to contain homoerotic undertones, Forster’s libretto focusing on the novice’s physical appearance and natural charisma. Though possessing a stammer when under emotional duress, Billy is much liked among his crewmates. Imbrailo is a natural performer, climbing the ropes and being a high-spirited seaman. Toby Spence as the revered Captain “Starry Vere” is an unexpected choice, as those familiar with the story might envisage an older actor, but he performs well with evocative and beautiful lamenting arias. Conductor Ivor Bolton’s musical arrangements are buoyant and lifting, then menacing and thunderous respectively, brought to life through a live orchestra and joined by a 60-strong all-male chorus.
Although the show’s scenes are slow to unfold in the performance’s three and a half hour duration, as maritime tales go, Billy Budd presents a clear fable, which, when coupled with extraordinary set and light design, makes it easy to appreciate and one will find themselves awed. With its simple story line, Warner’s production is a feast for the eyes, richly textured and subversively bold, and the Royal Opera House is an ideal venue to stage the grand nautical epic.
Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Billy Budd is at the Royal Opera House from 23rd April until 10th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.