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Billy Budd review at Grand Theatre, Leeds – ‘wonderfully realised performances’

Roderick Williams in Opera North's Billy Budd. Photo: Clive Barda
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Back in 2010 Glyndebourne scored a major hit with Michael Grandage’s production of Britten’s opera about the struggle between good and evil, played out on the British warship HMS Indomitable during the French Wars of 1797.

Now Irish director Orpha Phelan takes up the challenge for Opera North, creating a staging of Billy Budd that succeeds equally in realising its mystery and transcendence.

If the requirements of touring inhibit the realism of Leslie Travers’ set – half ocean-going vessel, half semi-ruined chamber where Alan Oke’s aged Captain Vere remembers the distressing events of decades before, the show is regularly visually striking.

To two singers – baritone Roderick Williams and bass Alastair Miles – falls the nigh-on impossible task of creating the symbolic roles of Billy and Claggart, embodiments of good and evil respectively. Yet it is remarkable how successful Williams, in particular, is in suggesting a creature whose physical and moral beauty have about them a touch of the divine; a composer himself, he sings Britten’s notes with a clear understanding of why each and every one of them matters.

Miles, too, conveys much of the inner darkness of Claggart, whose self-loathing causes him to destroy the being who has caused him to feel – perhaps for the very first time – a kind of love.

In between these two stands Oke’s expertly sung Vere, blessed by Billy even as he watches his execution – a death he could have stepped in to prevent. The character’s unfathomable decision is exposed for us to solve – if we can.

Around these three performances Opera North has mustered a first-rate supporting crew, who come together in the grandest gestures of Britten’s choral writing, flooding the theatre with sound, while conductor Garry Walker has the measure of the smallest details as well as the overall scope of the score.

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Three wonderfully realised central performances in Britten’s saga of good versus evil