Opera Review by Karren LaLonde Alenier

Billy Budd Held in High Esteem by His Mates






Review of Billy Budd

In 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 Wars.

Aboard 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.

By 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.

In 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.

Under 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.

Washington 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.

September 18, 2004