Saturday, May 5, 2012

Billy Budd: Farewell, old Rights o' Man

Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Last night's Billy Budd was one of the stronger all-around efforts I've seen recently at the Met. John Dexter's production has a straightforward Horatio Hornblower aesthetic, but is efficient and structurally clever. The set used space well, underlining the reality that the many-leveled ship is a confined, complex, and dangerously authoritarian society. The claims that fate (or institutions) can absolve individuals from responsibility, and that divine justice renders human injustice less rather than more culpable, were consistently undermined. This may be more due to the performers than the production. There was good energy on stage and in the pit, keeping the emotional tension as well as the ideological stakes of the performance high.

David Robertson led the orchestra in a performance both powerful and powerfully eerie. I thought the delicate moments of the score well-handled, with nicely judged details, especially from the woodwinds. Robertson was attentive to the singers, (and could often be seen mouthing the text of the libretto along with them.) The overall tone was meditative rather than urgent, but I thought it worked. The men of the Met chorus outdid themselves in excellence; the interval audience was abuzz with comments on their superlative performance. From the first, uncanny "Heave away, heave" to the final, inarticulate murmur of outrage, the chorus sang with excellent diction and powerful expression. Theirs was perhaps the standout performance of the evening. This was my first live Billy Budd, so perhaps those more familiar with the opera would say that it is inevitable for the chorus to emerge vividly as a collective protagonist, oppressed by the same systems which enable Billy's unjust execution... in any case, this struck me more powerfully than it ever had in listening to recordings.

Among the seamen there was scarcely a weak link. Elliot Madore was a sweet-voiced Novice's Friend, while the Novice himself was poignantly acted and sung by Keith Jameson. I found The officers Redburn, Flint, and Ratcliffe sang beautifully together, and gave strong individual performances. Kyle Ketelsen sang the role of Flint with admirable tone and phrasing; Ryan McKinny (in his Met debut) gave a vivid portrayal of Ratcliffe as a man deeply troubled by the business he finds himself caught up in. James Morris made a Claggart both authoritative and menacing. His sound was somewhat leathery, but evenly produced, and his attention to text was never less than compelling, especially in "O beauty! handsomeness! goodness!" I could have wished for more of a sense of actual violence in or from Morris' Claggart (for a sadist, he's remarkably non-threatening) but I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Nathan Gunn as Billy
(c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
Making his Met debut as Captain Vere was John Daszak. He contributed impassioned singing with a bright, muscular tenor. To me he seemed to desire Billy more visibly than Claggart himself. As he settles into the run, Daszak's Vere may gain still more in vocal and dramatic nuance. Daszak made me believe in all Vere's emotions, but I wasn't fully sure what, for him, tied them all together. Creditably, he did make Vere's fear--of mutiny, of damnation, perhaps of his own desire--palpable. (This subverted, fortunately, the epilogue's spotlight of illumination and redemption, which I would have found still more jarring otherwise.) Nathan Gunn was well-cast in a role where personal charisma is posited as a key to character. His handsome sailor was amiable, boyish, trusting, and vulnerable. He sang with lovely phrasing, and made Billy's enthusiasm palpable. There were a few crooned high notes towards the end, but he still made me cry with "Look! through the port comes the moonshine astray." I was expecting lyricism, but Gunn instead gave this stunningly beautiful music with broken phrasing and, instead of peace, the intense longing for it. The redemptive overtones of the text have no comfort for Billy himself, who is frightened, lonely, and weeping. His forgiveness of Vere is no less real--and all the more moving--for that. It is perhaps worth noting that Melville made the text of this ballad a broadside published after Billy's death, turning a miscarriage of justice into a parable. It was more than suggested that Vere's desperate claims--"he has blessed me, and saved me"--are false, the elevation of Billy's death into martyrdom the story a guilty society needs to tell itself about its victims. If grace is to be found, it is despite, not because of the sailor's tragedy.


  1. Nice review Lucy. Billy Budd is one of my favourite operas and I'd LOVE to hear Nathan Gunn in the title role.

    1. Thanks! I'm relatively new to the opera, but I'm fascinated by the symbiosis of the music and the literate libretto... so many layers! I found Gunn's portrayal very successful; his "goodness," though, is not of the "glowing, aggressive sort" which Britten envisioned.

  2. Do they still have Dansker playing a concertina? Because they really needed to fix that.

    1. Ha! No, they don't. Fortunately. I hadn't realized at first that this was another Met production older than I am. And I had assumed that the men I heard talking about how James Morris had been stronger in the role of Claggart 30 years ago were exaggerating the timeframe but... nope (34, in fact.)


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