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Review: Billy Budd, by Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 25

PUBLISHED: 17:25 29 June 2017

Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten which is receiving its first performnace at The Aldeburgh Festiva;. Picture: Clive Barda

Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten which is receiving its first performnace at The Aldeburgh Festiva;. Picture: Clive Barda

© Clive Barda 2016

Billy Budd, though relatively rarely performed, is one of Britten’s finest operas and this splendid concert staging by Matthew Eberhardt fully realised the quality and intensity of Britten’s musical vision. Running to more than three hours, with no surtitles and little beyond a few telescopes and instruments of naval chastisement to suggest the setting, the tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of HMS Indomitable was superbly captured throughout with the help of Mike Lock’s effective lighting.

Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten which is receiving its first performnace at The Aldeburgh Festiva;. Picture: Clive BardaBilly Budd by Benjamin Britten which is receiving its first performnace at The Aldeburgh Festiva;. Picture: Clive Barda

Under conductor Garry Walker’s controlled and assured baton the orchestra and chorus of Opera North perfectly captured the routine of nautical life in the opening chorus ‘Oh heave away’.

The opera is opened and closed by the ship’s captain, Edward Vere, sensitively performed by Alan Oke. His diction, particularly in the opening scene, was outstanding and he imparted quiet, reflective authority throughout.

Peter Savidge, Dean Robinson and Callum Thorpe as the ship’s officers made a cohesive unit while giving each character distinct colour and personality. There was also plenty of interest and vitality amongst the sailors with Conal Coad as Dansker adding a particularly welcome touch of humanity to the lower deck.

Brindley Sherratt, sturdy of frame, dark in dress and voice was well cast as the evil and perverted Claggart. The simmering tension in his feelings towards the handsome and capable young sailor was evident and his explosive outbursts all the more convincing. His death at the hand of Billy was well managed. Roderick Williams as the fated hero Budd captured his unaffected lightness of spirit but also his flaws and his stammering was quite unnerving. His wonderful aria just before his death was sung with rapt intensity and beautifully accompanied.

Garry Walker drew some overwhelming sounds from the orchestra on occasions as in the build up to the (eventually abandoned) engagement with the French forces and the sinister growls of mutiny from the sailors after Billy’s execution grew in a disquieting intensity. It was something of a relief to be returned to Vere’s study towards the end of his life and his measured recollections.

This was, in every way, a gripping performance of outstanding quality and a wholly appropriate way to conclude this year’s festival.

Gareth Jones

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