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Billy Budd review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘visually spectacular and musically arresting’

Jacques Imbrailo in Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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The good ship Indomitable sailed into London last night to a hero’s welcome, after triumphs in Madrid and Rome. The cast for Deborah Warner’s production of Billy Budd is virtually unchanged, with the irrepressible Billy of Jacques Imbrailo matched by the brooding Claggart of Brindley Sherratt and Toby Spence’s handsome Captain Vere.

Britten’s all-male opera demands character singing of the highest quality, and this production highlights British male talent spanning three decades. From the peerless Clive Bayley as wise old Dansker, to the wide-eyed Novice of Sam Furness, everyone makes their mark in this motley crew.

While some directors play up the homoerotic potential of the story, adapted from Herman Melville’s novel, Warner focuses on basic human interaction, with affectionate displays of camaraderie rather than sexual advances. Britten wasn’t interested in judging good and evil but revealing men in all their complexity.

Warner is aware of the unhealthy obsession shown by Claggart for Billy, but turns it inward to expose his fear of love, and his determination to destroy Billy, the symbol of love. Claggart’s Iago-like aria is often rushed through, but here conductor Ivor Bolton lingers on its lyricism – sometimes too long for its own good. An incisive bass-baritone, Sherratt ensures that we can hear every word of Forster’s somewhat purple prose.

Spence’s Captain Vere is scarcely older than his officers, Thomas Oliemans (Redburn) and Peter Kellner (Ratcliffe). This makes his authority more provisional and explains why he defers to them when they condemn Billy to be hanged. Spence may lack gravitas, but his voice is still fresh and firm for his last, poignant aria.

The production is a visual feast in spite of its monochrome palette and empty stage. There’s no attempt to recreate an 18th-century man-o’-war; instead Jean Kalman’s spectacular lighting creates spaces crisscrossed by ropes and shadows; the back wall is the sky, suffused with a blueish light that suggests dawn, dusk and infinity.

Michael Levine’s wooden platforms rise and fall to separate the officers’ quarters from the ordinary seamen below decks. Chloé Obolensky has chosen vaguely 20th-century uniforms for the officers while the seamen wear combat trousers and grubby vests.

The 60-strong chorus is amplified by 30 non-singing actors expertly deployed by choreographer Kim Brandstrup. The swell of the sea in the music, beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, is translated into swaying bodies, scrubbing the deck or moving together like a Mexican wave. In the big set pieces, such as the battle with the French ship, this mass of bodies, noise and lighting is overwhelming.

Director Deborah Warner: ‘I thought opera was absurd, impossible, but then I got it’

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Deborah Warner’s visually spectacular and musically arresting new production of Britten’s naval opera