Arts & Events

A BILLY BUDD for the Ages

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday September 16, 2019 - 03:48:00 PM

I’ve seen quite a few productions of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd in the past, including the first two — in 1978-9 and 1985-6 —of three prior productions at San Francisco Opera. I’ve enjoyed and learned something from each of these productions, as well as from those I’ve seen elsewhere. However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production until this one that effectively highlighted the intensity of the morality play inherent in Herman Melville’s unfinished novel of Billy Budd, and did so in Benjamin Britten’s strikingly idiosyncratic musical terms. In short, for me, this San Francisco opera production of Billy Budd, which opened on September 7, and which I attended on Sunday, September 15, is a Billy Budd for the ages. 

Lest I get carried away, however, let me say that the stage set for this Billy Budd, imported from Glyndebourne, England, presented me, and not only me, it seems, with some initial difficulties. This unitary set offers us a view that seems to be of the inside of the hull of a British man of war circa 1797. Yet the libretto, a carefully written work by none other than E.M. Forster with help from Eric Crozier, repeatedly gives us scenes from outside, on the deck of the ship, where sails are unfurled, distant enemy ships are sighted, and canons are fired. The spatial ambiguity of this unitary set, a product of the combined vision of Michael Grandage and Designer Christopher Oram, caused me to reorient myself at several stages towards the drama that unfolds. The question it raises is an interesting one: Is this an exterior drama or an interior one? That it is both is obvious. The question becomes, which vision of this drama does one wish to emphasise? By choosing a view of the interior of the British man of war ship the Indomitable, this production deemphasises straightforward realism to the benefit of suggestive ambiguity and allusiveness. By giving us the inside of the ship, this production emphasises the claustrophobia of the common sailers on a ship at sea, constantly up against one another and their superiors. Moreover, the ribs and vertebrae of this ship’s interior might well suggest the inside of the belly of a whale, evoking the Biblical Jonah’s captivity therein, a reference not at all out of line with both Herman Melville’s and Benjamin Britten’s view of things. Both Melville and Britten seem to be interested, mainly, in the moral dilemma experienced by Captain Vere, who finds himself caught amidships, as it were.  

We’ll get to this moral dilemma of Captain Vere’s in a moment. Let’s acknowledge, first and foremost, that the singing of the principals in this production of Billy Budd was uniformly excellent! As Captain Vere, tenor William Burden was outstanding. From his opening moments, wherein as an old man, he recalls the incidents involving Billy Budd, then through the harrowing enactment of those moments, down to Captain Vere’s old age closing lines at the end of the opera, William Burden was a sympathetic, tragically conflicted individual. He managed to convey vocally the inner conflicts he experienced between dutifully enacting the Articles of War that called for the capital punishment of Billy Budd for striking a superior officer and killing him, on one hand, and his profound intuition, on the other hand, of the goodness and innocence of Billy Budd.  

In the title role, baritone John Chest was also excellent. His high baritone easily captured the nuances of a role often assigned to a tenor. As Budd, John Chest was earnest, forthright, and full of the naiveté that Billy Budd’s character calls for in spades. John Chest’s delivery of Billy Budd’s final ballad as he awaits hanging, “Billy in the Darbies,” was a thing of utmost beauty. The third point in this opera’s triangle of goodness and evil, whose pivotal point is Captain Vere, was, of course, Master-of-Arms John Claggart, here sung with merciless ferocity by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. If there is anyone who can make evil sound beautiful, it’s Christian Van Horn. Where the operatic role of John Claggart is concerned, I don’t envy the task of the singer. But, believe me, Van Horn was more than up to this task.  

Among the minor roles, a few stood out. Veteran bass-baritone Philip Skinner was impressive as Dansker, the sympathetic old-timer who befriends Billy. Three other bass-baritones also sang impressively: Christian Pursell as Mr. Ratcliffe, Philip Horst as Mr. Redburn, and Wayne Tigges as Mr. Flint. Tenor Brenton Ryan was compellingly pathetic as A Novice suborned by Claggart to entrap Billy. And tenor Matthew O’Neill brought comic relief to the role of Squeak. 

The Opera Chorus’s male contingent, led by Ian Robertson, sang robustly as the crew, and they were aided by members of the Ragazzi Boys Chorus led by Joyce Kell. The orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, who was making his local debut, gave a robust account of Britten’s score. The sea is ever present in Britten’s Billy Budd, as it also is in this composer’s Peter Grimes; and here the orchestra faithfully renders the dark, swirling waters while the chorus of crew members sing “O Heave! O heave away!”, and are thus identified with the mysterious energies of the sea. Finally, the orchestra alone takes over the opera near the end, and for three long minutes we hear brass, strings, winds, and horns, intone a series of mysterious chords. During this 34 bar stretch of instrumental music, no action occurs onstage. Perhaps this is Britten’s musical rendering of a scene Herman Melville declined to put in words — the unseen interview wherein Captain Vere communicates to Billy Budd the verdict of the court martial — Billy must be hanged from the yardarm. Musically, this is a moment of sublime solemnity; and it is the highlight of this opera.