The Met closes season with a memorable “Billy Budd”

May 05, 2012
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

John Daszak as Captain Vere, Nathan Gunn as Billy, and Dwayne Croft as Mr. Redburn in Britten's "Billy Budd." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The 2013 bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner are already spawning miles of verbiage and clogging up the schedules of opera companies large and small. Amidst all the fuss over those thunderous geniuses, another important anniversary, the centennial of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), may pass with less attention that it merits.

A towering master in his own right, Britten may also be Verdi’s greatest heir—indeed, perhaps his only heir. Both were terse and astringent in their musical language, and both were students of Shakespeare who crafted dramas that hold the stage well and capture their characters at moments of agonizing moral choice. All of these qualities were in evidence Friday night in the Metropolitan Opera’s superb revival of Britten’s Billy Budd.

John Dexter’s 1978 production, now staged by David Kneuss, is among the oldest in the company’s repertory and also one of the best. It has no space-age projections or overpriced gizmos, no atomic bombs or other clumsy metaphors standing in for actual engagement with the work being presented. Instead, William Dudley’s handsome, straightforward set uses platforms to show the decks and captain’s cabin of the Indomitable and to denote the military, social, and moral hierarchies at play in the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on Herman Melville’s unfinished novella.

The Met has always done well by Britten’s opera, which it performs in the standard 1964 two-act revision. (Billy Budd had four acts at its 1951 world premiere.) On Friday, the cast included the improbable and welcome luxury of Dwayne Croft, one of the Met’s great interpreters of the title role, in the small part of Redburn, which he sang with swagger and crisp, pellucid enunciation.

Making his company debut as Captain Vere, John Daszak was up against such past Met paradigms as Sir Peter Pears and Philip Langridge. He acquitted himself splendidly, winning a huge and well-earned ovation from the house. Daszak has a bright, lean tenor that he deploys with intelligence and sensitivity. He gave vivid life to Vere as a man of action and learning whose failure to act at the crucial moment of Billy’s trial and to think beyond the draconian codes of his “kingdom” (Vere’s word for his ship and also the state he serves) brings about the slaughter of a man he knows to be innocent.

The character Billy Budd evokes many mythic and religious figures, especially Moses, a foundling who stutters and whose face glows with supernal light, and Jesus, a blameless man who loves and forgives even as he faces an unjust death. In the simple grace of his singing and person, Nathan Gunn as Billy gave off glimmers of their uncanny virtue while remaining a boisterous and rough-hewn sailor. His rendition of Billy’s soliloquy was heartbreaking, sung softly and with velvety tone, eerie and otherworldly as Billy imagines the “oozy weeds” that will enshroud his body at the bottom of the sea.

As Billy’s antagonist John Claggart, James Morris is thicker of girth and less vocally potent in the lowest reaches of the role but still unnerving. Like Verdi’s Iago—one of Morris’s celebrated portrayals and one of Britten’s musical models for Claggart—his master-at-arms is still and malignant, forever casting shadows as he emerges from the ship’s bowels, the light-sucking counterpart to the luminous Billy.

Britten’s opera has some two dozen solo parts. All were lustily sung and played at the Met, with Keith Jameson (the Novice), Scott Scully (Squeak), John Cheek (Dansker), Allan Glassman (Red Whiskers), and debut artist Ryan McKinny (Lieutenant Ratcliffe) giving standout performances.

That said, with no disrespect implied to the fine leading players, the rock stars in this Billy Budd, as in so many productions all season, were the Metropolitan Opera chorus under Donald Palumbo. Even in multi-layered ensembles (the battle scene that opens Act II, for example), it was possible to understand every word they sang. And the singing!  A chthonic rumble when the crew threatened to mutiny after Billy’s execution; their stout-hearted and bone-weary cries of “Oh heave! O heave away!” as they labored under their brutal masters in the first act.

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra under David Robertson gave a tense, bracing account of Britten’s bristling score. Not all of the brass playing was immaculate, and there were fleeting moments of ragged ensemble. Still, the 34 chords that sounded as, unseen, Vere told Billy of his death sentence—modeled on the chimes of midnight in the final scene of Verdi’s Falstaff—told with searing eloquence of the darkness and redemption, struggles and surrender that swirl in Britten’s towering music-drama.

Billy Budd  will be repeated May 10 and 12. metoperafamily.org212-362-6000.

4 Responses to “The Met closes season with a memorable “Billy Budd””

  1. Posted May 05, 2012 at 1:25 pm by Linda Ginsburg

    It will be a bittersweet centennial celebration of Benjamin Britten as the three great post-Pears tenors, Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Robert Tear are gone. Along with the death of Richard Hickox what a tremendous loss we have suffered in a short span!

    I was at the Met for a Saturday matinee performance the last time BILLY BUDD (Croft, Langridge, Morris) was presented. It was filmed and shown on PBS but the Met has not yet seen fit to release it on DVD.

  2. Posted May 05, 2012 at 4:53 pm by Stannis Baratheon

    Yes, that performance ought to be on DVD.

    I don’t think it’s wise to put Morris beside two young singers in their prime. He never was a basso profondo to begin with, and there are a lot of great Claggarts to choose from, like Tomlinson (still going strong), Rose, Halfvarson, Bayley…

  3. Posted May 05, 2012 at 8:10 pm by Fred

    I saw it and I didn’t like it. I could barely stay awake.

  4. Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:05 am by Richard Pierce

    I just saw Billy Budd for the first time this evening and I thought it was outstanding. The libretto is tight and dramatically compelling and the same may be said of the music. If Fred slept through the opening of the second act with all hands on deck and cannons blasting, all I can say is if there is a second coming Fred, you’re likely to sleep through it. Richard