I find his music generally too dreary and tuneless to give much enjoyment, but when the theme of the opera is as strikingly sombre and moralistic as that of Billy Budd, Britten’s music can fit it perfectly. Even I cannot deny that Billy Budd is a great work and when the acting, singing and staging are of the quality displayed in Deborah Warner’s new production at the Royal Opera House, it is a real treat. Billy Budd was the last novel by Herman Melville who had already written of obsession and tragedy on the high seas in his more famous work Moby Dick.
The obsession in this case, however, was not a white whale but that of the Master-at-Arms John Claggart, whose envy of the newly enrolled midshipman Billy Budd fuels a desire to destroy him. Budd is attractive, young and popular, all of which are characteristics lacked by Claggart, who also has problems dealing with his suppressed desire for the handsome fellow.
The third main character is the ship’s captain, Edward Vere, who has to judge the allegations made by Claggart that Budd harbours plans to mutiny. Hampered by his stammering, Budd is unable to tell the true story and lashes out at Claggart, killing him with a single punch to the forehead. Morally, Vere knows Budd was justified, but the Law of the Sea demanded death for striking a senior officer.
What was already a great story by Melville was improved when the novelist EM Forster (who wrote A Passage to India, Howard’s End and many other epic works) joined forces with Britten’s librettist Eric Crozier to work on the opera. Forster significanly improved the pace of the story and added a very potent touch by putting the tale in the mouth of Edward Vere, which accentuated the anguish of the captain.
Melville killed off Vere shortly after the Budd-Claggart affair; Forster tells the story of an old ship’s captain still troubled by the events of many years before.
Unusually, it is the power of the story that makes Billy Budd such a good opera, and the strength of Britten’s music does it justice. All three main roles are sung very well and acted to perfection making this as good a production as one is likely to see. South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo was excellent in the title role, perfectly looking the part, demonstrating surprising rope-climbing ability and even stuttering convincingly.
His persecutor Claggart was portrayed with just the right amount of seething malevolence by British bass Brindley Sherratt while British tenor Toby Spence handled the role of Captain Vere with impressive dignity and authority. The acting at the Royal Opera is always of a very high standard, but when the story is as tense and well-written as this, it demands extra qualities and the whole cast succeeded admirably.
Finally, I must mention the set design, by Michael Levine, which captured the squalor of a 19th century warship with a plethora of ropes, a few ladders and an impressive collection of hammocks, and the excellent performance of the Royal Opera House Orchestra whose conductor Ivor Bolton fully brought out the drama of Britten’s music. Altogether an impressive production.
Box Office: 020 7304 4000 or roh.org.uk (last night: May 10).