Review | Billy Budd at Royal Opera House

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Billy Budd production image (C) ROH 2019. Photographed by Catherine Ashmore

For the first time in almost twenty years, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd returns home to the Royal Opera House in this co-production with Rome and Madrid, directed by Deobrah Warner and designed by Michael Levine.

The story, based on the Herman Melville novel of the same name is about the HMS Indomitable, captained by Captain Vere (who in a prologue and epilogue narrates the story from old age) it has forcibly taken 3 new recruits on board, one of them being Billy Budd, a keen young sailor who catches the eye of John Claggert- the Master of Arms with tragic consequences.

Brindley Sherratt as John Claggart (C) ROH 2019. Photographed by Catherine Ashmore

This is a piece with some great main performances anchored in Jacques Imbrailo as Billy (which as a former Jette Parker Young Artist with the Royal Opera House this must have felt quite special). Brindley Sherratt as John Claggert steals every scene he is in, his voice is just velvet, full of menace and manipulation too, it is glorious to watch. Toby Spence as Captain Vere is an interesting one, his voice is good but I’m not sure about how the production presents him, he comes off as quite a weak character rather than as a strong captain who is stuck in impossible circumstances. Talking of Jette Parker Young Artists, Dominic Sedgwick as the novice’s friend (he gave the standout performances at last years’ JPYAP Summer performance and a brilliant turn in this years Katya Kabanova) gave a moving performance of ‘Come along kid’; his acting and his conviction, along with a strong melodic voice made it a stand out moment.

We were spoiled for choice with the entire cast of this production, some of the stands out were Duncan Rock as Donald who along with leading ‘We’re off to Samoa’ brought some real depth and luxury to his voice and performance; Sam Furness as the novice in his Royal Opera House debut gave a heartbreaking performance, as both the innocent who suffered horrifically physically and then a just as horrific mental suffering. Clive Bailey as Dansker, the loveable old man who is friends and trusted by everyone was a gem. This is quite a chorus-heavy opera and the ROH chorus pull it off wonderfully. Ivor Bolton as conductor made full use of the world-class orchestra of the Royal Opera House and gave Britten’s score everything that it’s got, the orchestra were, as usual, stunning.

There were some aspects of the production I disliked, at points it didn’t really like a ship we were watching just some rope; I also disliked that Captain Vere wasn’t aged but his ‘age’ was implied by him singing next to an older man, it removed a bit of the sadness around the prologue and epilogue as from looks alone it would be difficult to tell if all of it had just happened, as he looks the same. At points the ‘idea’ of a ship set did work however and looked spectacular: the sails coming down, ropes everywhere, the feeling of movement as well, it was visually stunning. A rare scheduling error was the focal point of many complaints, as the opera with one interval is about 3hrs20. Usually for a run time like this, the performance would begin at 7 and finish just before 10.30, which is what happened with Cosi fan Tutte for instance, for Billy, it didn’t start till 7.30 and finish at 10.50.

It has been far too long since Billy Budd has been on the Royal Opera House stage and this is a welcome return, you couldn’t ask for a better cast or orchestra to deliver it. The production is good but it is the performances and the stunning music which are what you’ll stay for. I hope it will return very soon.

Words by Stuart Martin.


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