of Billy Budd
a flawless company premiere that opened September 18,
the Washington National Opera presented Billy Budd,
Benjamin Britten's collaboration with E. M. Forster.
Using the 1961 revised two-act version, WNO offers this all-male
opera September 21, 25, 27, 30 and October 3. The opera Billy
Budd is based on the novella of the same title by Herman Melville.
The Britten/Forster collaboration has transposed the setting to
a British warship after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic
the H.M.S. Indomitable during the summer of 1797, Billy Budd falls
victim to the reign of terror exacted by Master-at-arms John Claggert.
This is a navy of forced conscription and the dread word mutiny
preys on the fears of Captain Vere and his fellow officers. Budd,
however, is unique--a foundling who does not know his origins
or date of birth, he has found a home with a career on the sea.
As the opera begins, he says good-bye to his last ship The Rights
of Man and thus, in saying the ship's name, plants a seed of suspicion
among the warship's leaders who ask the dirty-dealing Claggert
to keep an eye on the new recruit.
the end of Act I, Claggert, also known derogatively by the crew
as Jemmy Legs, has sent his corporal Squeak and a pathetic
boy who has been flogged into submission after Budd. The old salt
Dansker has warned Budd, whom he calls Baby, that Claggert
is a danger to him but Budd tells Dansker that Claggert likes
him and calls him a sweet and pleasant fellow.
Act II, war erupts both inside the ship and without. As Jemmy
Legs approaches his captain to say that Budd is planning a mutiny,
a French frigate sails into view and the captain issues a call
to arms. Unfortunately a mist descends and the battle is halted
allowing Claggert to lodge his accusation. Vere refuses to believe
Claggert, but summons Budd to clear up the matter. Budd who stammers
cannot speak and defend himself. Instead he strikes Claggert and
kills him with one blow. Captain Vere, who bears the nickname
Starry Vere and who is the narrator of this story, opening
and closing the opera as an old man ruminating on good and evil,
cannot justify bending the rules to save this likeable young man
Billy Budd. Even so, Budd refuses to allow his shipmates to save
him and he blesses Vere who stands by as Budd is hanged.
the direction of Francesca Zambello, winner of the British
Olivier Award for Best Opera Production and the French Grand prix
des critiques, Billy Budd at a two-and-one-half-hour run
time is a well-integrated production in which no single singer,
scene, or instrument is as important as the whole universe created
by Melville, Forster, and Britten. English tenor Robin Leggate
as Captain Vere was convincing as the tormented moralist. American
baritone Dwayne Croft as the pretty boy but stammering
Billy Budd made the audience believe in his purity, especially
as he sings his last aria about being lashed in a hammock and
dropped deep into the sea. Likewise Samuel Ramey, a renowned
bass, made it easy to see how evil Master-at-arms Claggert was.
Despite excellent singing by each principal performer, what stands
out in memory are the choral numbers where the company sings such
pieces as the sea chantey Heave Away or the lyrical song in patriotic
support of Starry Vere. Set designer Alison Chitty has aptly provided
a massive platform that tilts up and down allowing the audience
to see activities above and below the Indomitable's deck. Because
Britten does not provide an orchestral overture, the orchestra
becomes another part of this well-integrated whole.
National Opera has coupled Giordano's Andrea
Chenier with Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd as the
2004-2005 season openers. Both operas deal with fear and uprisings
of the common man in and around the time of the French Revolution.
Theater-goers tuned into current day political issues should find
these operas resonant but not strident.