OPERA North’s week at The Lowry is coming, with three different programmes on offer. One is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier – a revival of the glittering and sumptuous production by David McVicar first seen in 2002 (one of my favourites). It’s conducted by the new musical director of Opera North, Aleksandar Marković.
The next is Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd – a new production. And the other one is a double bill of Puccini: the two short operas from his Il Trittico which are NOT Gianni Schicchi, that is Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.
I went to see Billy Budd in Leeds ahead of this visit to Salford. It’s a big show – written for an all-male cast – with a huge chorus and some spectacular effects delivered by director Orpha Phelan and her team.
The story is taken from Herman Melville, and the librettists who worked with Britten in 1951 were E M Forster and Eric Crozier. It’s set throughout on a British warship in the Napoleonic era, at sea and on guard against the French, where Billy is a young able seaman who is ‘impressed’ – ie signed on against his will. His nemesis is the evil master-at-arms, John Claggart, and the captain caught in a desperate moral dilemma is Edward Vere.
These pivotal roles are played by Roderick Williams, Alastair Miles and Alan Oke, three of today’s top stage singers and all long associated with Opera North.
The scene you will most likely remember if you see it is at the beginning of Act Two, where the ship prepares for action against a ‘Frenchie’. With the full cast on stage and eager for battle, a magnificent orchestral backdrop and two huge guns lowered over the stage and then tilted to point at the audience before firing, the effect is genuinely scary.
Be prepared for loud bangs, we were warned as we entered the auditorium on the first night, and it was an accurate prediction: wisps of fire-cracker ash hung in the air for minutes afterwards.
The point of the opera, though, is the contest between good and evil, in the shape of Billy and Claggart, and Vere’s decision to order Billy’s hanging, in accordance with King’s Regulations, though he is manifestly a good and noble lad. It’s a thoughtful experience.
Opera North at The Lowry: Nov 9 and 12 – Der Rosenkavalier; Nov 10: Billy Budd; Nov 11: Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica