Billy Budd; The Nose review – the aye-ayes have it

Grand theatre, Leeds; Royal Opera House, London
Roderick Williams is a winning Billy Budd in Opera North’s top-notch production. At Covent Garden, the loss of a nose is no laughing matter

Britten’s opera opens biliously – the seasick swell lulls you into a true sense of insecurity. Billy Budd is as much an endurance test to watch as Shakespeare’s Othello (its librettists, EM Forster and Eric Crozier, were aware of the echo). Orpha Phelan’s attentive production brings this tremendous work into focus – but brace yourself for the feel-bad factor. Enter Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, in long buff coat. “What have I done?” he sings, and repeats the question more faintly, becoming his own echo, consumed with guilt at having, long ago, helped condemn an innocent sailor, Billy Budd, to hang.

Alan Oke as Captain Vere.
Alan Oke as Captain Vere. Photograph: Clive Barda

Alan Oke is superb as the ancient mariner – his wan severity reminiscent of Peter Pears (whose entire performance can still be seen on YouTube). Behind him are distressed grey walls, as if the designer had given up on the job (which Leslie Travers very much has not). The shattered wall is, as we move into extended flashback, hoisted to suggest, ingeniously, a sail. The ship (the Indomitable by name only) is elegantly sketchy, not obviously seaworthy, a shiver-me-timbers vessel. And the mist rolls in, the weather colluding with the blurred morals on board.

Opera North’s chorus is top-notch. Naval hierarchy is emphasised by Thomas C Hase’s lighting that picks out the golden epaulettes of officers who stroll on the bridge above, and plunges the calico crew that toils below into shade. Their singing is steeped in reluctance: they scrub the decks as if in a trance. Britten is routinely hailed as a virtuoso interpreter of words but what strikes most in this opera is how astonishingly precise – close to verbal – the wordless music is. The undulating orchestral tumult is indicative of brutality to come. John Claggart, master-at-arms, is ushered in with a phrase of feline notes: no words needed to warn us further. As Claggart, Alastair Miles is wonderfully intimidating, with a voice that holds fast and a withheld officiousness (he makes you want to hiss, as if at a pantomime baddie).

Claggart is the opera’s Iago, and Billy’s cravat (which Claggart confiscates) the equivalent of Desdemona’s handkerchief – if differently employed. There is a suggestion that he is sexually attracted to Billy and repelled by temptation: he pulls the cravat from his own neck, as if it were tainted, and asks: “What hope is there in my own dark world?” It is tempting to see the opera as a period piece about homosexuality, but Britten and Forster have carefully covered their tracks. And for today’s audience there is even more to it. There is a grimly topical scene in which a handful of officers, swigging grog, express their dislike of the French, like tipsy Brexiters – a reminder there is nothing new about British xenophobia.

Roderick Williams, top, as Billy Budd.
Roderick Williams, top, as Billy Budd. Photograph: Clive Barda

But the evening is made, above all, by Roderick Williams’s Billy Budd. He is winning – he beguiles throughout, a happy-go-unlucky chap. Billy admits he cannot read but claims he can sing – and who could disagree? At the end, he memorably makes a virtue of simplicity, facing death, on an empty stage, with soaring stoicism. Garry Walker conducts with finesse, and the Opera North orchestra sustains tension with aplomb. Only one vexation: the absence of surtitles. Too many words escaped on a sea breeze.

Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, is being performed at the Royal Opera House for the first time, with Australian director Barrie Kosky (from the Komische Oper Berlin) making his Covent Garden debut. The Nose was premiered in 1929, when Shostakovich was 22, and damned by Stalin’s proletarian critics. Based on a Gogol short story, it is about an official collegiate assessor, Kovalov, who wakes up one morning to find his nose has disappeared. The nose goes walkabout. I was expecting an exhilaratingly offbeat satire about Soviet life, but as an opera, even though short (under two hours without an interval), it is, in narrative terms, strangely monotonous. The nose may acquire legs but the story doesn’t.

Martin Winkler, ‘breathless in a burgundy suit’ as Kovalov in The Nose.
Martin Winkler, ‘breathless in a burgundy suit’ as Kovalov in The Nose. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

It is given a riotously full-on treatment to compensate, in a style (designer Klaus Grünberg) that owes something to Complicite. It could, I reflected, have been written by Edward Lear’s Russian cousin. To rival Lear’s Dong with a Luminous Nose, there is a chorus line of 11 tap-dancing noses, a manic, mustachioed police force and ginger-bearded gents in flowery swimming costumes. To say that the production tries hard would be an understatement. Musically, it is an adventure playground of yawning brass, buzzing strings and insinuating flutes. Sometimes,it sounds as though Shostakovich has got all the saucepans out of the cupboard at once. David Pountney’s new translation is jaunty, fresh and attention-seeking (one character shouts from the stalls: “This isn’t the Nag’s Head, it’s the bloody opera house!”), and there is much effing and blinding when Kovalov cannot stick his nose back on.

Martin Winkler sings Kovalov with anguished power, breathless in a burgundy suit, with an expressive baby face like a painted egg. He wipes his hands on his waistcoat and conveys convincingly that his plight is disagreeable and distressing. Following his nose through St Petersburg does not come easily to him. The nose is his badge of honour, a class accessory, proof of manhood. But would he be better off without it? We are asked to laugh – but it is no laughing matter. That is the point. No wonder one applauds but continues to feel sniffy.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Billy Budd ★★★★
The Nose ★★★

  • Billy Budd is at the Grand theatre, Leeds until 29 October, then touring to Newcastle, Salford, Nottingham and Edinburgh until 3 December
  • The Nose is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London until 9 November


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in classical: Billy Budd; Holy Week festival – review
Royal Opera House, St John’s Smith Square, London
A radiant and raw production brings out the nuances of Britten’s seafaring opera; and Bach offers Easter gifts

Fiona Maddocks

28, Apr, 2019 @6:59 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Agrippina; The Intelligence Park; The Greek Passion – review
Joyce DiDonato’s stop-at-nothing empress leads a top ensemble cast in Barrie Kosky’s enthralling Agrippina. Plus dizzying Gerald Barry and a powerful Martinů rarity

Fiona Maddocks

28, Sep, 2019 @10:59 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Silent Night; Messiah; Carmen review – anything but silent
A 100-strong male voice chorus gave the resounding premiere of Kevin Puts’s first world war opera. Plus, a thrilling first Messiah of the season

Fiona Maddocks

09, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Mitridate, re di Ponto; Billy Budd; Ariadne auf Naxos review – a starry week at the opera
A top cast dolls up for Mozart’s Mitridate. Plus a heart-stopping Billy Budd and a dazzling newcomer at Glyndebourne

Fiona Maddocks

30, Jun, 2017 @10:10 AM

Article image
Classical music: Fiona Maddocks's 10 best of 2020
The year will be long remembered for recitals to an empty Wigmore Hall, car-park Puccini, Ravel as animation – and one man and his piano…

Fiona Maddocks

26, Dec, 2020 @7:00 PM

Article image
The Snow Maiden; Luca Burato review – the girl who came in from the cold
Opera North delivers folklore in a factory in a rare staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden

Fiona Maddocks

29, Jan, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
The week in classical: The Magic Flute; Aurora Orchestra – review
Was it all a dream in Opera North’s new Magic Flute? And songs from the road with Aurora Orchestra

Fiona Maddocks

27, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Street Scene; SCO/ Emelyanychev – review
Opera North revels in a night on the town with Kurt Weill. And the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has a magician in its midst

Fiona Maddocks

25, Jan, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Bluebeard’s Castle; András Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer; Manchester Collective – review
Opera North’s concert performance gets right to the heart of Bartók’s opera. Elsewhere, Hungarian fireworks of a different kind

Fiona Maddocks

07, Dec, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill; Le nozze di Figaro; BBC Symphony Orchestra – reviews
Opera North singers take a nimble turn through Kurt Weill’s songbook. Plus, a notable debut at Nevill Holt and Mariam Batsashvili at Maida Vale

Fiona Maddocks

23, Jun, 2018 @1:00 PM