Monday, September 9, 2019

A stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented Billy Budd opens at San Francisco Opera

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd doesn’t see the light of day, or the darkness of the theatre to be more specific, as often as it should. It’s been 15 years since San Francisco Opera last staged it. That could be considered recent in comparison to its almost 20 year absence, until this year, from London’s Royal Opera where the opera premiered in 1951. Judging by the rigorous and insightful approach taken in a production new to San Francisco Opera - by way of Glyndebourne Festival where it took in two seasons of audiences in 2010 and 2013 - this Billy Budd from director Michael Grandage shows it to be the masterwork it is and might just be the highlight of the company’s 97th season.

John Chest in the title role and cast of Billy Budd
at San Francisco Opera
Set in the late 1790s during the Napoleonic Wars, Brit-born Billy is young, genial, adventurous and without family. He’s also devilishly handsome and a lowly subordinate which bring about the tragedy to come. He loves his life, is loved for many reasons by his crew and thought highly of by the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, whose strength of command and conscience is tested by the serrated edge of law. For in this shipload of sweaty men eager to sink the French, evil authority picks its target - embodied by the master-at-arms, John Claggart - and sets about to destroy the handsome lad who, by presence alone, appears to threaten him by unhinging suppressed homosexual desire. Accused by Claggart of mutiny, Billy is brought before Vere to defend himself but his stammer gets the better of him and, in a fit of frustration, lashes out at Claggart and knocks him dead.

The great tragedy of Billy Budd is manifold - of innocence preyed upon, of purpose confused or, worse, lost completely, of regretful actions and of blind belief. Most of all, as the turbulence builds towards its inescapable climax, it’s of preposterous injustice. Vere, lit up alone in the dark on stage in the bookended prologue and epilogue tells us so. Based on Herman Melville’s novella of the same name and grittily told through E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s libretto, the work’s success is in no small part due to its deeply constructed characters who inspire audience inquiry.

In an extraordinary looking tri-level monumental cross-sectioned hull of a man-o’-war as part of Christopher Oram’s stage design, isolation, containment and the predicaments that arise within its raw and oppressive hold are handled with rewarding tension-building theatrical muscle. Under revival director Ian Rutherford, it’s a production that has it all. It’s stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented.

Christian Van Horn as Claggart and William Burden as Vere
Britten’s score heaves and swings to and fro with oft-times capriciousness and wide ranging orchestral textures to which conductor Lawrence Renes lent cutting clarity, rhythmic seduction and appealing fluidity on opening night. The orchestra obliged, playing with tremendous sensitivity.

Perfectly driving the drama, amongst his own unique writing, you can hear both Puccini’s influence on Britten and Britten’s influence on the likes of Adams. It was as if Britten drew upon Scarpia from Tosca to conjure the monster he created for Claggart, given formidable life by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Every time Van Horn appeared, amongst a cloud of cavernous brass, he owned the stage, he owned evil, his pathological brutality hardening his stance as the cane he wielded gave him the air of a macabre ringmaster taming his animals - and his voice of burning coals and fierce resonance seared its horrific intent brilliantly. Even when Claggart is dead and carried off from the claustrophobic vessel, it never felt like his evil had disappeared.

As much as you can feel Vere’s desire to command fairly - the lucent sound of the harp is often heard as his acoustic aura - he accepts that good has never been perfect. But perfectly suited indeed was tenor William Burden in the role, projecting his crisp and glowing tenor with breadth of character. Burden commands the stage in impeccably firm and considered style, portraying Vere’s dilemma in delivering justice - while acting against his conscience - poignantly in voice and body. And the contrasting vocal shades Burden gives in both prologue and epilogue, as the aged and erudite Vere looks back on the the affair, added compelling substance to his reflection on failing to prevent Billy’s execution.

John Chest in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Billy Budd
If I wasn’t completely won over by American baritone John Chest’s company debut in the title role initially, what was to come more than compensated. Chest is a picture of youth and looks for the part, covering the ship with boundless energy and making a convincing case of Billy’s absolute commitment to king and county. The voice is golden, burnished and airy with a seriously appealing timbre that suits Billy’s character, however, what sometimes let him down was murky diction that left him in the shadows of two champions in total command. Still, Chest decked out “And farewell to thee, old Rights o’ Man” sensationally and in “Billy in the Darbies” he brought astonishing wrought emotion to the music in one of the great highlights.

Excellent performances came from an accompanying crew numbering more than 70 strong male voices. Philip Horst’s Mr. Redburn, Christian Pursell’s Mr. Ratcliffe and Wayne Tigges’ Mr. Flint stood out robustly in their smart-uniformed higher ranks. Brenton Ryan as the beaten young and manipulated Novice and Philip Skinner as harmless old Dansker were highly effective too and the chorus mustered up exceptional vocal beauty from light waves of sacred-like chants to bursts of cyclonic force. In all, Grandage’s Billy Budd is an experience that both satisfies as a piece of superlative drama and bares its tragedy with unequivocal power.

Billy Budd
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 22nd September, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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