Where were the microphones? Don’t tell me no one spotted the audiophile possibilities in this flawless, fabulous account of Britten’s nautical opera? In that case it will have to live on as an "I was there" evening.

Roderick Williams (Billy Budd) © Sam Murray-Sutton
Roderick Williams (Billy Budd)
© Sam Murray-Sutton

Opera North's production of Billy Budd opened last autumn to enthusiastic reviews, including one by me, but this concert version is in another league. Most of the original cast members have returned for these Aldeburgh Festival performances, with the addition of Conal Coad as Dansker and company stalwart Dean Robinson as Mr Flint, but in shedding Orpha Phelan's cramped staging the show has blossomed into one of those dramatised concerts that Opera North does so well. And it's epic.

The first gain is in the soundscape, with featured soloists, male chorus and six outstanding 'powder monkeys' (one of whom, James Slingsby, returns to his former Cabin Boy duties) disposed around the orchestra in real-life SACD. With the Maltings acoustic once more aglow thanks to the dismantling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream's problematic faux-proscenium arch, the aural spectacle was overwhelming. Indeed, at the opera’s great climaxes Suffolk's famous wood-and-brick building could barely contain it.

Alan Oke (Captain Vere, standing), Dean Robinson (Mr Flint) and Peter Savidge (Mr Redburn) © Sam Murray-Sutton
Alan Oke (Captain Vere, standing), Dean Robinson (Mr Flint) and Peter Savidge (Mr Redburn)
© Sam Murray-Sutton

Then there was the palpable growth in confidence from conductor Garry Walker as he marshalled his forces. His reading of Britten's score has matured since last year's opening night, to the extent that I count this one of the most muscular accounts of it that I've heard. Walker's workout had the gruelling energy of sinews stretching and bones pumping as the Opera North Orchestra supplied a tireless display of physicality. The abortive attack on a French frigate, one of Billy Budd's great set-pieces, was an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

Third, rarely can a concert performance have been as expertly lit as this one. The players may have been dressed in variants on platform attire (white tie and tails for the officers, black shirts and trousers for the sailors) but they were illuminated by Mike Lock with sense and sensibility and a superb understanding of the score. It added enormously to a semi-staging by the production's original assistant director, Matthew Eberhardt, that was as sharply drilled as any naval battalion.

The joker in the pack – no, joker is definitely the wrong word – was the addition of Brindley Sherratt's matchless Claggart to the company. The great British bass, still currently on Baron Ochs duty for WNO, revisited the role with which he scorched Glyndebourne's earth in its revival production and delivered a performance of staggering presence and baleful intent. Herman Melville's master-at-arms is a creation of pure evil, more a brother than a cousin to Otello's Iago, and Sherratt’s interpretation of it was a masterclass in malignity and power. Along with Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes it counts among the great opera performances of 2017.

Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and David Llewellyn (Squeak) © Sam Murray-Sutton
Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and David Llewellyn (Squeak)
© Sam Murray-Sutton

For the rest it's as you were, and that is no bad thing. The excellent Oliver Johnston returned as the tragic Novice, as did Peter Savidge as a deeply humane Mr Redburn. (The First Lieutenant's parting glance towards Alan Oke's anguished, magnificent Captain Vere was an indelible moment, haunting in its compassion.) And Roderick Williams remained a memorable Billy, his demeanour of sculpted innocence at one with his energised vocal performance.

To end as we began, there ought to be a way of preserving this Billy Budd in its present state, but I guess Opera North has missed that particular boat. The next best thing? Well, the company has a vacancy for a new music director, and the orchestra openly revelled in Garry Walker’s conducting...