BILLY BUDD | London, Royal Opera House

Shouts of aggressive elation fill the auditorium at the curtain call for this three-and-a-half-hour, all-male, claustrophobic maritime myth, based on Herman Melville’s final, unfinished novella. Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera has not been staged here for nearly 20 years, so this new co-production with Teatro Real Madrid and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is quite the event.

Conductor Ivor Bolton manages a crystal clear quality out of the enormous orchestra of the Royal Opera, and Britten’s complex, schizophrenic score. The sheer orchestral power as the sailors of HMS Indomitable prepare to fight the French at the start of Act II, and sing old sea shanties at the end of Act I, is mindblowing.

The cast is equally enormous. The opera calls for 17 principal singing roles, with every character’s importance ever changing throughout its unpredictable plot. In addition to a 60-strong male opera chorus singing the heave-hos, 30 actors also swarm the stage, hoisting gigantic ropes and swinging the scenery. However, hearing only tenors and basses can get wearing on the ear.

The story itself is not so dramatic: a continual theme is that of something exciting about to happen, which then fizzles out to nothing. In spite of this central difficulty, director Deborah Warner manages to convey a real sense of panic, with fantastic, truthful performances from the whole cast. As a result, both Britten completists and first-timers will find this new production magnetic.

Billy Budd is nearly sold out, until 10 May 2019.

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