Roderick Williams, with his apparently ever-present cheerfulness and wide-armed charisma, was an excellent casting choice for the ill-fated impressed and honest-to-goodness seaman Billy Budd, who is taken to join the crew of a Royal Navy warship in paranoid times, when any hint of mutiny could be linked to agitation by French Jacobins and their kind. Near the beginning of Act I, his buoyant rendering of “And Farewell to Ye, Old Rights O’ Man”, addressed to the merchant ship he once served, significantly named after a work by Jacobin sympathiser Tom Paine, gave plenty of notice of the fear and tension which will fill his time on board, mainly because of Britten’s ominous orchestration.

Roderick Williams (Billy Budd) © Clive Barda
Roderick Williams (Billy Budd)
© Clive Barda

This was handled with great skill by conductor Gary Walker (winner of the 1999 Leeds Conductors’ Competition) who was making his Opera North debut. The brass was particularly impressive throughout the performance. By the time Williams got to the end of Act II, when he is in the brig of HMS Indomitable waiting to be hanged, he had completely charmed the audience: he sat alone front stage, hands tied behind him, single spot picking him out in the gloom to sing “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray” with great delicacy, mostly piano, balanced against happy notes from a piccolo. When he reached his vision of death (“...fathoms down... I’ll dream fast asleep...”) he was heartrending.

It was nearly enough to steal the show, but the cast of this intense, all-male psychological drama is strong, and there were other striking performances. John Claggart, the Master of Arms, for example, played by Alastair Miles, was the required embodiment of depravity, costumed in black and swishing a cane around. He was the male counterpart, to some extent, of the disciplinarian nun in the recent all-female production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, Opera North’s production of a fortnight ago, who also carried a cane. The homoerotic element, brought to the libretto by EM Forster and Eric Crozier (it was not in Herman Melville’s original novella, arguably), was not overemphasised, but Miles gave a moving interpretation, dark and low, of “O beauty, O handsomeness, goodness”, the character’s admission to himself that he has secret, forbidden desires, addressed to Billy’s red neckerchief on the floor. It was a nice touch. His “I will wipe you off the face of the earth!” had real power. Claggart’s death after a blow from the frustrated and stuttering Billy in the captain’s cabin did not seem right. Perhaps it was dealt with a little too cursorily. He hit the deck after an unconvincing stage punch with rapidity, raising a few laughs from those sitting near me.

Alan Oke (Captain Vere) and Alastair Miles (John Claggart) © Clive Barda
Alan Oke (Captain Vere) and Alastair Miles (John Claggart)
© Clive Barda

The central figure of the opera is the captain with a tortured conscience, Edward Fairfax Vere, who appears like bookends at the beginning and end as an old man looking back on the time when he allowed the man who was like an angel to him to hang. Alan Oke was at his best with a subtle but full-blooded version of “I accept their verdict”, his emphases matching perfectly those in the orchestration, and his sense of pathos as an old man was well-judged. Oliver Johnston was prominent briefly as the Novice, the one who gets flogged, his voice really notable, and Stephen Richardson as Dansker, the old salt who comforts Billy, was superb, reaching down almost to basso profondo at times. David Llewellyn was the ultimate Squeak, the informer who rifles through Billy’s bag, and the youngsters (midshipmen and powder monkeys) showed that the company has no problem finding talented children.

Roderick Williams (Billy Budd) and the Chorus of Opera North © Clive Barda
Roderick Williams (Billy Budd) and the Chorus of Opera North
© Clive Barda

The Chorus, as usual, displayed its accomplished ensemble work, this time under the guidance of chorus master Oliver Rundell and director Orpha Phelan, contributing fully to the creation of an oppressive atmosphere, which is more than merely claustrophobic, because the production put the focus on issues of freedom, democracy and attitudes to dictatorship. The men portrayed sullen resentment at its most intense, and yet managed to be fierce and alert, equipped with muskets and grappling hooks, for a terrific battle scene, when the Indomitable nearly gets to grips with a French vessel.

On the night I was there, the first act was a little slow, but it mattered little, because by the end, enormous energy had been accumulated, to make this production of a Britten classic really memorable.