If you want to show off the depth and flexibility of your company ensemble, or at least its male contingent, then Britten’s Billy Budd is the ideal opera, requiring teamwork and individuality in equal measure. The latest revival of Oper Frankfurt’s 11-year-old production by Richard Jones – rightly regarded a company classic – puts the principals, chorus and extras through their paces. Literally so in the first scene of Act 1, where the crew is subjected to a full-on workout of running and push-ups in place of the usual floor-scrubbing.

Björn Bürger (Billy Budd) © Barbara Aumüller
Björn Bürger (Billy Budd)
© Barbara Aumüller

For Jones, HMS Indomitable is not a ship, but a naval academy in the early postwar years at about the time the original four-act version of the opera was premiered. The setting has the same claustrophobia as a warship, not least thanks to Antony McDonald’s meticulously detailed set that slides from the side to side to offer up different rooms and spaces for the various scenes but all having a looming, closed-in feeling. This is a closed community, ruled with the iron fist of a prison – but probably familiar to anyone subjected to boarding school or worse. The interesting thing is that the relocation doesn’t appear to jar with the text. All the action is transposed to this new context with imagination and plausibility – the preparation for battle in Act 2, for instance, becoming a competition as two teams of students race to set up their canons. There’s an incompatibility with the outside world that seems to pick up the irony of Captain Vere’s words in the opera’s prologue: “I was a man of action,” he says, when the story that unfolds very much reveals the opposite when it comes to saving Billy Budd from hanging. For him ‘action’ is all in the mind, as the occupants of this academy aren’t seen to interact with the outside world at all, engaging with an enemy that can only be perceived in the abstract. The underlying sexual tension and homoerotic subtext that guide the tragedy to its conclusion are by no means hidden, but are subtly underlined – even the production’s notorious shower scene doesn’t feel an intrusion, especially when followed by the scene between Claggart and the Novice in which the sense of a history of abuse is palpable.

<i>Billy Budd</i> © Barbara Aumüller
Billy Budd
© Barbara Aumüller

But back to the ensemble. That Frankfurt didn’t need to look further than its house team to cast the three main roles so successfully is evidence enough of the company’s current strength. Björn Bürger was born to be Billy Budd: quite apart from his musical acuity in the role, his dramatic interpretation really got to the heart of the character, capturing his naive ebullience as well as a side we don’t often see, his inability to read people correctly, even a hint of autism in his interaction with the world around him. Thomas Faulkner made for an unusually young Claggart – here the epitome of the evil schoolmaster, prowling the stage with sinister, expressionless purpose to fit the lugubrious music Britten writes for him, and hiding the contorted emotional struggle within himself until he is alone with his thoughts. Faulkner’s opulent, cavernous bass heralds a true successor to the likes of John Tomlinson and Richard van Allan in the role, and as his first major part since joining the Frankfurt team was an ample showcase for his musical and dramatic skills: Wagner's bass villains surely beckon. Michael McCown’s Vere took a little longer to warm into his role, but he conveyed all the conflicted forces preying on the character’s mind.

Simon Bailey (Redburn), Magnús Baldvinsson (Flint), Brandon Cedel (Ratcliffe), Michael McCown (Vere) © Barbara Aumüller
Simon Bailey (Redburn), Magnús Baldvinsson (Flint), Brandon Cedel (Ratcliffe), Michael McCown (Vere)
© Barbara Aumüller

Among the rest of the Indomitable’s officers/masters, Simon Bailey’s Mr Redburn stood out for the naturalism of his projection of the text and for the realistic detail of his acting, with Magnús Baldvinsson’s Mr Flint and Brandon Cedel’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe giving solid support. Also of note were Mikołaj Trąbka’s eloquent Donald, Michael Porter’s achingly abject Novice and Alfred Reiter’s sympathetic school caretaker of a Dansker. The chorus sang heartily and conductor Erik Nielsen kept a tight ship, the orchestra unleashing waves of sonic richness, atmospheric and shattering by turns.

*****