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Ionarts at Santa Fe: Billy Budd

For more background information on this opera, see my preview article on Billy Budd.

William Burden (Vere) in Billy Budd, directed by Paul Curran, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
William Burden (Vere) in Billy Budd, directed by Paul Curran, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Better late than never. Santa Fe Opera has finally staged two of Benjamin Britten's masterpieces, with Peter Grimes in 2005 and now Billy Budd this summer. This opera is, with Grimes, Britten's grand operatic masterwork, and it works very well with a blockbuster staging like that of Francesca Zambello for Washington National Opera. Paul Curran, as he did for the Santa Fe Grimes, has situated his production in a way that seems both expansive for the more intimate Santa Fe stage and yet closing in to more introspective space.

The set that remained for both acts showed a composite view of the deck of the HMS Indomitable (sets designed by Robert Innes Hopkins), with the helm wheel far upstage, on a raised deck with the Union Jack fluttering in the desert wind blowing through the open stage. A yellow mast in the center raised up the foretop riggings, and other ropes and sails were seen closer to the audience, as well as two cannons on either side. Walls slid from both sides, meeting in the center, to mark off Captain Vere's quarters, and the raked stage lifted up to reveal the men's quarters beneath the deck (not unlike Zambello's production, but less spectacularly).

Keith Jameson (Novice) and Peter Rose (Claggart) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Keith Jameson (Novice) and Peter Rose (Claggart) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
The headliner of the cast, who were all generally good, was Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role (his first American appearance in the title role, having debuted it earlier this spring with Opera Australia). Rhodes certainly looked the part, a handsome, lanky, even gangly Billy, scuttling up and down the rigging and, of course, singing some of the time without his shirt. Vocally, however, it does not strike me as his part, although his slightly woolly sound was pleasant enough. Some of the high notes were just not there, at least on last Friday night, as in Billy's scene with the chorus ("Starry Vere, I'm for you"). He did not seem all that comfortable with the musical demands of the role, either, not quite certain of the beat at several points. Tenor William Burden, a former Santa Fe apprentice and audience favorite, was a refined, aristocratic Vere, an impression helped not least by the staging, which showed him sipping a glass of port as the three men were impressed into service in the first act. His voice is not something I found easy to love, with some vocal tics like scooping and other affectations that caused a few intonation problems.

Peter Rose (Claggart), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Billy), and John Duykers (Red Whiskers) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Peter Rose (Claggart), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Billy), and John Duykers (Red Whiskers) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
By far the most impressive sound came from the snarling, sadistic Claggart of British bass Peter Rose, so spiteful of the machinery in which he is a cog that he spits in Captain Vere's port glass. He was a huge, hulking figure with a powerful voice to match, descending to a menacing growl in the bottom range (only exaggerated final consonants displeased). Britten battled somewhat with his librettists, especially E. M. Forster, over the homosexual motivations of the characters in the opera, much more transparent in Melville's book than they ended up in the opera. Curran opted to bring those desires out of the closet, as it were, by importing great significance to the red neckerchief that Billy wears. Claggart imperiously orders Billy to remove it, deeming it too colorful for a ship at war. Not only does he pocket the token, like Cherubino with the Countess's ribbon in Le Nozze di Figaro, but it appears again in Claggart's hand when he sings his monologue "O beauty, o handsomeness, o goodness!".

Most unusually, it appears yet another time, in the hand of Captain Vere at the end of the opera, as he struggles with how to respond to Billy's unintentional murder of the scheming Claggart. Its presence there indicates that Vere likely understood the self-loathing origins of Claggart's hatred of Billy, as he clearly believed that Claggart's accusations were groundless. Vere cannot bring himself to make that knowledge public, with the shame of "the sin that cannot be named" providing another reason why the captain does nothing to save Billy from his fate. Steve Smith, who was seated next to me on Friday night, and I both saw this as a tragic expression of a sort of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in His Majesty's Navy.

Lucas Meachem (Donald) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Billy) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Lucas Meachem (Donald), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Billy), and Cast in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Among the supporting cast, so large in Billy Budd, Keith Jameson (former Santa Fe apprentice and Bob Boles in Peter Grimes) had an especially fine turn as the Novice. Some of his high notes were (not inappropriately) a little squeaky, but the voice had intense appeal as the young man's flogging and subsequent shame were plaintively accompanied by those bluesy alto saxophone solos (Eric Lau). Jameson had exactly the right dramatic presence for the novice, genuinely terrorized rather than whining or snively. The passages with the Novice, more than any other scenes, seem to support Humphrey Carpenter's comparison of the sufferings of the ship's all-male environment to those of a British boys school. Did Britten suffuse the Novice's music with his own memories of being unjustly punished at school?

Other Reviews:

Craig Smith, Going Dutch with 'Billy Budd' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 10)

D. S. Crafts, SFO Cast Carries Britten's 'Billy Budd' (Albuquerque Journal, July 15)

John Stege, Hey There, Sailor (Santa Fe Reporter, July 16)

Hervé Le Mansec, Décapant ! (ResMusica, July 18)

Steve Smith, Anchors Aweigh (Night after Night, July 26)

Georgia Rowe, Innocence Meets Fate (San Francisco Classical Voice, July 29)

Scott Cantrell, 'Billy Budd' would benefit from a recast (Dallas Morning News, August 2)

Anthony Tommasini, Billy Budd the Jock, Beautiful and Agile (New York Times, August 2)

Anne Midgette, Promising 'Adriana' Could Use a Drama Lesson (Washington Post, August 4)

George Loomis, Le nozze di Figaro, Santa Fe Opera (Financial Times, August 14)
Timothy Nolen (Mr. Flint) and Richard Stilwell (Mr. Redburn) had too much fun in their witty interactions ("Don't like the French!"), and the ensemble gave a puissant, virile sound to the remarkable choral numbers, with vast waves of sound in the shanty scene ("Blow her to Hilo") and battle scene ("This is our moment!"). Santa Fe Chief Conductor Edo de Waart led a convincing reading of the score from the podium, although Richard Hickox, whom we reviewed at Washington National Opera, had a more profound knowledge of and ease with the score. De Waart was most challenged in those large choral scenes, where there were several disturbing misalignments between the singers, who tended to rush ahead of the beat, and the orchestra.

Among many beautiful solos from the pit, the piccolo's warbling commentary in Billy's dawn song, just before the execution, was particularly fine. As for the so-called Interview Chords, the series of sustained triads that are heard in the orchestra as Vere meets with Billy to explain his fate, de Waart gave them a stillness more serene than ominous, although the forte entrance of the brass chord was powerful. Curran's only misstep in the staging was the music theater antics of the crew during the shanty scene (see photo above -- "We're off to Samoa!"), but all in all, this was an excellent production for the debut of Billy Budd at Santa Fe Opera.

Britten's Billy Budd will be repeated on July 31, August 6, 14, and 21 at Santa Fe Opera.

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