Billy Budd in Genoa

An English opera in Italy? What next: Eccles cake in the pasticceria? But if you are going to perform Billy Budd in Italy, there could be nowhere better than Genoa. In the first act, the sailors sing lustily “we’re off to Samoa, by way of Genoa” and, by an unhappy coincidence, in February 1941 the ceiling of the auditorium had been destroyed by a shell fired from a British warship. The Genoese must be a forgiving lot for they nevertheless did Britten’s opera proud.This was mainly due to the exciting reading of the score by conductor Andrea Battistoni, only 28 years old and, with his shock of hair, somewhat resembling a young Rattle. He brought out odd harmonies and rhythmic patterns that I seem not to have heard before.

The production by Davide Livermore made full use of technology, the three-part stage rising and falling as if with the waves. It was also powerful, particularly in scenes focussing on interaction between the principals; those involving the crew were in contrast dramatically too conventional. Perhaps this was inevitable given the large numbers involved, combining three different choruses brought together for the event.

The role of Captain Vere is ideal for Alan Oke with his plangent voice and intensity of expression – a very different interpretation from that of Peter Pears which had been more intellectual, more introspective. The Canadian Phillip Aldis also impressed as Billy. He caught exactly the right mixture of naivety and bravado, and with his warm baritone made much of his last great monologue. In contrast, Graeme Broadbent failed to convince as Claggart. His portrayal was too much that of a monster. To get observers to speculate on what makes him tick, a more subtle, almost normal demeanour is, I think, required. But this is a minor quibble. It was, taken as a whole, a striking evening of music theatre.