Britten's Opera sets sail at The Grand


Even some of the most avid opera lovers are not lovers of the works of Benjamin Britten.  I am afraid I share this view too. I find his music rather overpowering and his   subjects  always laced with a morbid tragic theme.

Some of his works are taken from those awful stories we had  to read, or in the case of poems learn at school, that sent us all rushing to buy the latest teen magazine at the local shop to snap us out of the miserable mood they put  us into.

But Opera North’s productions of Britten’s works, no matter how morbid or tragic always make me rethink and I have come to enjoy them in a rather strange way.

The secret lies with their staging, production and of course their principals and their ultra-talented chorus and that Billy Budd has the largest male chorus I have seen for a very long time and that gives power to the operas elbow.

Based on a novella by Herman Melville, Billy Budd tells the tale of Billy, a young sailor who radiates beauty and goodness, provoking the envy of the Master of Arms of HMS Indomitable, Claggart, who becomes bent on Billy’s destruction.

The one man who has it in his power to save Billy is the ship’s capatain, Vere, who is haunted all his life by his failure to do so. It is a tale that plumbs the darkness of emotional depths. It has sinister undertones and is peppered with the raw and cruel regime that existed at sea in the French wars in 1797.

Orpha Phelan’s production is an operatic triumph in every way; whilst Leslie Travers design remains true to the period but enables the production to flow with ingenious set changes and brilliant mood lighting by Thomas C Hase.

Conductor Garry Walker manages the orchestra of Opera North with great skill and never allows it to dominate yet introduces a rare sensitivity when required.

Opera North has essembled a cast of principals that each tick every box of their roles in both operatic performance, characterization and movement. So much so I wanted to cheer when Billy punched Claggart, he was so detestable,  yet cry at Billy’s emotive moments before his execution.

No review of Billy Budd would be complete without mention of the 40 male chorus members that made up the ships crew who looked and sang so convincingly and manipulated a difficult set with tricky moves so wonderfully.

Billy Budd is at The Grand Theatre Leeds and then goes on tour in the region.

Liz Coggins


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