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29.9.04

Opera at Sea


Other Reviews of Billy Budd:


Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey:


This past Monday night (September 27), I had the sensation of watching something familiar, almost as if I knew that things would end badly. I am not speaking of what most of Washington was doing that night, watching the local football team (although they use the name of Washington, they actually play in Landover, Md.), whose name is an unmentionable racial slur, lose to the Dallas Cowboys. There were also some people watching another tragic story, Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, from the Washington National Opera. (I watched the end of the game when I got home, of course.) This much-praised production, by director Francesca Zambello, has been keenly anticipated, and it did not fail to deliver on its promise. Along with the other opera in this first part of its new season, Andrea Chénier (see reviews on September 9 and September 24), I agree that Billy Budd confirms that the Washington National Opera has turned a corner.

Collaborating with librettists E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten adapted the libretto for this opera from a difficult book, not particularly opera-ready, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman. Incredibly, the story works very well as an opera. There are two themes that stand out as a possible basis for a production of this opera. Given that the creators of the opera (Britten, Forster, and also Peter Pears, who created the role of Vere) were homosexual, the fact that the central love triangle of the opera (Vere-Claggart-Billy) happens to be all male is important. How much of Claggart's hatred springs from a deeply closeted love of Billy or jealousy of Billy for Vere's affection? It is a question that a production could try to answer.

Ms. Zambello's production does not deal with these questions. In fact, I agree with Jens that in some ways the production tries to soften the dramatic opposition that is inherent in Britten's score, which is played out literally in the juxtaposition of major and minor triads associated with Billy and Claggart, respectively. Good vs. evil is in the musical fabric, as it is in so many of Britten's operas (Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice, for example). Ms. Zambello does underscore the other major theme, that of redemption, with Billy as Christ. At one point in Act I, Vere, Claggart, and Billy (redeemed, condemned, redeemer) all stand on the tilted stage, in a straight line, during one of the interludes. Billy, "king of the birds, king of the world," also climbs the foretop, shaped rather explicitly as a cross, and hangs from it, like the crucified Jesus, in shining white light. As Jens points out, he is also displayed in his "crucifixion," hanged from the yardarm, from the moment it happens through the end of Vere's concluding epilogue. (You can see some photographs of the original version of this production at Francesca Zambello's Web site.)

I am perhaps unusual among opera critics in that I like what choruses do in operas. It doesn't bother me that their involvement may not always be "realistic," because opera is all about the suspension of disbelief. The male voices of the WNO chorus were in top form, and I think that they did the blocking they were asked to do without too much trouble. One of the moments when the striking floor of the set is raised up on hydraulic columns, to create a two-tiered set resembling a ship's prow, is the aborted battle scene of Act II ("This is our moment"). The combination of visual grandeur, powerful male singing, and booming orchestra (heavy on percussion and brass in this scene) bowled me over. It sets up perfectly the sense of despair as the chance for action and victory fades away with the mist.

Richard Hickox did an excellent job with the orchestra. To circumvent the monotony that is reasonable to expect from 150 minutes of all male voices, Britten used his large orchestra in continually inventive ways: the drum roll that heralds Billy's fatal flaw, his stammer; the bluesy saxophone lines; the discordant warbling of the piccolo in Billy's tragic dawn song, before the hanging. All of that rich color shone forth under Mr. Hickox's skilled leadership. Dwayne Croft (Billy Budd) sang valiantly through a bad cold, which was announced before curtain, to appreciate applause from the audience. I felt quite sorry for him as he hung from the yardarm for all that time, immobile. For me, the main quality of his performance was to bring out the dopey incomprehension of the character. It is not just that he is an innocent, happy to be pressed back into naval service because he is happy wherever he happens to be, but that he is, forgive me, somewhat stupid. Mr. Croft's face gave us a very clear understanding of how Billy is often such a fool, as his friend Dansker tells him.

Robin Leggate, I agree with Jens, had the right presence for Captain Vere, the idealistic, over-educated noble ideal of "Starry Vere" whose sense of decorum prevents him from stopping Billy's execution. He was vocally powerful when he needed to be and smooth and light at other times. The three lead officers under him (Bruce Baumer as Ratcliffe, Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, and especially John Hancock as Mr. Redburn) were all excellent. The only performance I would mention that Jens omitted was the Washington premiere of American tenor John McVeigh, as the sailing novice flogged and threatened by Claggart, so that he agrees to try to pin mutiny charges on Billy. He sang and acted very well, for a role that is the combination of servile yesmanship and frightened adolescence. He received a nice round of bravos at the curtain call for his efforts.
The last time Tim Page called a Washington (National) Opera production an unmitigated success, a milestone, a jewel etc., I started to believe in parallel universes we might inhabit. Then it was the Walküre, a, as I thought, decent performance at best (see my review published on April 14). This time it is Billy Budd and while the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and I are—pardon the pun—still not on the same page, I now know what he is writing about.

To see Billy Budd—a modern opera still, despite being in service for over half a century—come on the heels of the superbly staged and directed Andrea Chénier (see Ionarts reviews on September 24 and September 9) was a delight. Where is the timid ultraconservatism that usually drives me nuts about the WNO? Perhaps with the combination of those two operas the WNO has turned a new page as said critic suggests.

If Benjamin Britten's work—all men, as it takes place on board of the HMS Indomitable—is well done, it can be a chilling delight, an opera that works exceptionally well, almost despite itself. The characters, apart from lacking the vocal range given the absence of women (a few squeaky trebles don't count), are black or white, and to the rare extent that they are gray, even that gray is sharply delineated. Britten does not go for subtlety or realism here, as far as the drama is concerned. It's a fable on good and evil with a heavy homoerotic subtext that wasn't in the original Melville novel. In fact, in its operatic version, Billy Budd reminds me unfailingly of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle. Take it as that, sing it well, stage it impressively and voilà: the revised 2-act version should work. The WNO gets 2 ½ out of 3, and it works very well.

Francesca Zambella, who so incensed me with her blatant self-plagiarization in Die Walküre (Fidelio regurgitated in black), did a magnificent job, if heavy on the symbolism at times. Costumes could have been a tad less traditional for the officers, but no matter what you put on 50-some built, sweaty sailor boys, it's bound to look pretty good.

The singing was at a very high level. Sam Ramey, as the relatively evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart, has a bigger name than voice by now, but he is still impressive by all means. Besides, his experience on stage (he's probably played every incarnation of the Devil that exists in opera) paid off handsomely, handsomely indeed! His poofy hair, however, made him look silly and was distracting. At the Met [see production photo—CTD] he had it all pulled back and looked deliciously evil!

Robin Leggate's Captain Vere was all he needed to be, torn and sturdy, betraying—more in tone than in voice—a certain frailty. He was a wonderful embodiment of the character, though in his prologue I would have wished for a more reflected, inward-turned presentation of an old man, once more powerful, once more vigorous, experienced now, and his light not quite yet dimmed. The way Robin Leggate sang it, it came across more as a justification to the audience. A minor quibble, though.

Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, one of the neutral characters, was a delight. He seemed menacing and arrogant, as mean-spirited as John Claggart ought to have been, only to show the audience that the looks and the first impression of his character had us misjudge him when he never capitalizes on evil. I assume this was not the director's intention, but it worked for me as a cute little subplot. Mr. Redburn, played and sung by John Hancock, had a towering presence both vocally and physically. The 6'8" latecomer to opera always seemed as though he could sing the rest of the cast overboard if only he wanted to. Instead of doing that, however, he held back nicely, especially in the delightful terzett in Capt. Vere's cabin. Steven Cole, as the little creepy Squeak, sent mixed signals through his character, but no one sings "Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Yes Sir" quite like him.

This leaves Dwayne Croft among the characters that deserve special mention. Singing was good and well done, save for very occasional problems in holding long lines. But with his character stands and falls the opera, and here was where a fault could be found with this Billy Budd, though not a fatal one—pace the other qualities of the production. Croft's Billy was physically dominant, in and of itself not a problem. But Billy Budd is "all good," a gentle, fine and delicate naïf, goodness and beauty personified in such an unobtrusive way as not to cause envy or anger among common men. It is this goodness, this "can't-do-no-wrong" that is the uncomfortable mirror to John Claggart, who cannot but be reminded of his own jaded, cynical, bad self. Billy, therefore, must be undone.

Unfortunately, Croft's Billy was a cocksure, swaggering "do-gooder" who elicited a response not of awe or goodness but of creepy suspicion. Had I been Mr. Redburn I, too, would have told Claggart to keep an eye on that fellow, for that Billy made you wonder... there seemed something odd about him. The line between open, honest goodness and "what's he hiding?" is thin and difficult to nail when you have to sing your guts out at the same time, but it could have been and must be done. The explanation that I toyed with, namely that the direction aimed at diffusing the evil-good border a bit to have us better understand why Billy Budd is pursued by John Claggart, does not make sense as Claggard would have to have been less menacing and one-dimensionally evil than he was. Besides, the whole opera doesn't really take to such a concept. (At least that's what I feel until shown otherwise.) That major-minor objection apart, the whole thing was still captivating. It's an opera that demands being in the mood for. If you are... and well rested and alert, it is a very fine experience indeed. If not, it can get a bit long, even if the drama picks up in the second act when tension and speed increase significantly.

Mme. Zambella's sparse, evocative, gorgeous set helped quite a bit. A massive, raised rectangle over the corner was the deck, with trap doors being the only way onto and off it. The front triangle-shaped half of the deck can be raised or lowered with hydraulics, making for a staggeringly impressive battle scene (just what was that pathetic blue rag hanging on the mast? A sail? Sorry looking and limp, it needed omitting!) as well as an intimate cabin below deck.

Richard Hickox was a godsend to the orchestra and got a performance from his band that was very fine playing. To see this brilliant champion of English music at work was a delight, and the eerier parts of the orchestration (was that a glass harmonica I heard?) came through with color and plastic as though you could touch. With such playing, who cares if it wasn't 100% clean?! The chorus's acting was mediocre, which is better than the usual "dismal" (a curse of all opera houses, not just the WNO): movements were sometimes incoherent or otherwise ruined by stage hawks and overacting. One way to help out as a director would be to actually make them do things. For example, have them pull a rope rather than act out pulling it. The mechanics involved may seem a bit excessive for that bit of realism, but I think it might just be worth it.

The epilogue was downright brilliant. Picking up where the prologue left us, Capt. Vere is again a much older man, reflecting on how Billy Budd's forgiveness (he was hanged after more or less accidentally killing Claggart, who had wrongly accused him of mutiny) had saved him. Meanwhile we can still see Billy's body through the semitransparent curtain behind Vere... dangling, suspended 10 feet above the stage with a spot light on him. Perhaps a bit much on the Christ/Resurrection theme, but chilling. A stunning if qualified success then. And a must see if you "don't like the French!"

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