MUSIC / All shipshape: Julian Rushton on Britten's Billy Budd in Leeds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GRAHAM Vick's production of Billy Budd was first seen at Scottish Opera in 1987. Despite hints of the crow's-nest, Chris Dyer's harshly effective set, a tall structure of ladders and catwalks, looks more industrial than naval. Yet it cramps the action as it must, and has the advantage of thrusting the singers forward, allowing a clear balance and a projection which at times, notably when the chorus is involved, becomes overwhelming.

The force of the performance lies as much in its inner intensity, however, as in sheer volume. Apart from the superfluous presence of 'Old Vere', in modern pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers, looking down on his younger self, the costumes convey the power structure of the claustrophobic single-sex society where the few rule the many by spying and terror. With only rudimentary scene changes, we witness alternations of frenetic activity and tedious waiting among the sailors, while the cabin scenes are played out beneath. That Billy's freshness and enthusiasm represent a threat to this society is all too believable.

The opera contains some of Britten's richest orchestral writing, featuring mournful saxophone and plangent brass, and contrasting motor rhythms with the melting harmonies that delineate the mist (mental and natural) enveloping the ship. Both power and detail emerged from the orchestra under the assured direction of Elgar Howarth. But the glory of this opera is vocal: Britten designed Billy Budd to bring out the variety and splendour of male singing. The chorus, enlarged for this production and strongly resonant in quiet and loud music, maintains its exalted standard of precision. From it emerge individuals, some of them familiar soloists: Keith Latham as Donald, David Gwynne as Dansker, Richard Morton as Red Whiskers, Christopher Ventris as the whining Novice. The officers were represented by a smart boys' quartet and a fine adult trio: Peter Knapp, Roger Bryson and Jonathan Best.

As Captain Vere, Nigel Robson is a fine tenor pushed to his limits, like the man he represents. Philip Langridge takes over on tour, but meanwhile this is a promising interpretation by a developing artist. Jason Howard as Billy exudes agility and gauche eagerness; he valiantly saw the performance through despite a sore throat. Instead of being hanged, Billy disappears up the rigging as the men cower beneath a blaze of heavenly light. Does this transcendence overdo the fate of the tongue-tied sailor? It does not extinguish the shadow of murdered John Claggart, master-at-arms, who can seldom have been more menacingly portrayed than by the vocal magnificence and visible malignity of the admirable John Tomlinson.

In rep to 18 Jan at Leeds Grand (0532 459351) and on tour

(Photograph omitted)

Comments