Billy Budd

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

THERE was a little jocular seasonal booing of Alastair Miles's John Claggart at the curtain call of Opera North's superb production of Benjamin Britten's masterpiece, but we all knew we had witnessed a very sophisticated production of a complex adult work a long way from pantomime.

That awareness was there from the beginning in the performance of Alan Oke as tormented narrator Captain Vere, looking back on the ignominious episode that has blighted his navy career. Not only does Oke sing superbly throughout – the converted baritone's high tenor notes pure and powerful – but he charts the journey of his character, old and young, with a wonderful actor's skill. That individual triumph is emblematic of the whole cast, Roderick Williams giving us a naive but far from simple Billy, and Stephen Richardson investing old seadog Dansker with a developing biography of his own. There is never anything opaque about Claggart's repressed desires being the root of his victimisation of Budd here, but in the measured approach of Miles and director Orpha Phelan he is a psychotic whose un-named sexuality is never an excuse.

Phelan's staging, on Leslie Travers clever two-level set that is as much decaying building as late 18th century man-o-war, brilliantly conveys the pecking order on the quarter-deck as well as the cramped conditions of the men, and the superb chorus is kept very busy all night. The narrative clarity onstage is reflected by some superb playing from the pit, with some ear-catching solo contributions from alto saxophonist Rob Buckland and the double bassoon of Sarah Nixon. Conductor Garry Walker draws out every detail of the superb orchestration, with the fickle weather the players and singers describe such a crucial influence on the events that unfold. The Devil makes work, indeed.