Opera North have a great hit with their production of Billy Budd, one of Benjamin Britten’s finest operas. Recently premiered at their base in Leeds, it has received some excellent reviews, which it deserves. It has a brilliant stage design, it is very well sung, Opera North’s orchestra is superb (and well conducted by a previous conductor of Scottish Opera, Garry Walker), and they have put a cast of around 60 principals and chorus on the stage. Truly this is grand opera, and it gets a tremendous reception at the Festival Theatre tonight.
However, there is one serious flaw in their performance: there are no surtitles. Of course, Billy Budd is sung in English, but for example English National Opera, who do all their operas in English, always have surtitles in place because the words often cannot be heard. Singers will frequently concentrate on the melodic line rather than the diction, and in the case of Billy Budd, with its 60 piece orchestra, the music is sometimes very loud and can drown the singers out.
Reading the synopsis, one can follow roughly what is happening on the stage and some singers are much clearer than others. Alan Oke is excellent as Captain Vere, but this was the part designed for Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, so Britten not only gave him the best lines and music but allowed him to be heard! By contrast, Roderick Williams, the superb young baritone who sings Billy Budd, is sometimes difficult to hear, the orchestra drowning him out.
This is a real problem. After all, the libretto was taken from a Herman Melville novel, crafted by EM Forster and Eric Crozier, and as Forster observed, the words were very important to Britten: Britten thought Forster’s words were ‘the finest libretto ever’. Also, to convey the nuances of desire and hate towards Billy Budd that infect Claggart (superbly sung by Alastair Miles), the words really need to be heard or seen!
Apart from this major caveat, it is a superb performance. The staging is terrific and the power of the chorus and orchestra together make for a dramatic evening. It would certainly be worth five stars if it weren’t for the lack of surtitles, but opera is not just about the music, it is about the words too.