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Handsome Is As Handsome Does: The Met's Billy Budd

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I was thrilled to learn the Met was to revive its beautiful 1978 production of Mr. Benjamin Britten's masterpiece Billy Budd, based on Mr. Melville's novella of the same name. Imagine my dismay upon learning the only available ticket I could afford was a partial view seat on the far right of the Family Circle. (It is a mystery to me why the Met doesn't shower me with offers of comps for all its productions, considering how lovingly I have written about that noble company.) Imagine my delight when I whined about this on Facebook, like you do, and almost immediately heard from another friend with a spare ticket to the final dress rehearsal! What an emotional roller coaster this opera proved to be, even before the first downbeat from highly capable conductor David Robertson.

I had seen this production in 1992, I believe. The production was by John Dexter, designed by William Dudley. My strongest memory of seeing the show at that time was the chorus "Now Is The Moment," when the entire cast girds its collective loins for a battle against a French ship within its sights. (The setting is 1797, when, quel surprise!, the British were fighting the French.) The pre-Lepage machinery (which worked flawlessly **cough cough**) caused the expandable HMS Indomitable, like a current-day toy space ship/race car/Malibu Barbie beach house, to expand to its fullest extent in the largest nautical erection you will see this side of the USS Intrepid Museum.

Daszak, Gunn, Croft
Photo by Ken Howard
© 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.

There! I've said it! Because it was Benjamin Britten writing for Peter Pears, and because the libretto is by E.M. Forster (along with Eric Crozier), and because the source is Herman Melville, and because we're talking about the British Navy, all anyone can think about is the butt sex. (Would you'd rather I'd made a crude pun about seamen?) Dissertations have been written about why Claggart hates Billy Budd so, and it ain't because Billy is pure in heart. One of those deep quotes that makes the rounds of Facebook ad nauseam (yes, my second Facebook reference in one post) suggests hate is a result of feeling powerless. Claggart must surely think Billy's goodness gains him power against which he, Claggart, can't compete. Even more complex is Captain Vere's love for Billy, which on the surface seems a paternal affection. Your faithful reporter is approaching the half-century mark himself and has fond, avuncular relationships with a number of dear lads, so we won't delve very deeply into that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Billy himself? Thomas May's program notes quote Mr. Forster himself: "It is a difficult thing...the ordinary lovable (and hateable) human beings connected with immensities through the tricks of art. Billy is our Savior, yet he is Billy, not Christ or Orion."

The singing and acting in all cases were so fine that I actually spent more time thinking about the story, the symbolism, the music, than about pithy comments about each singer. I wished I had in my library a score* and had studied it deeply. (Frankly, I wished I had the vocal and acting chops to sing the role of Captain Vere!) I was so focused on the Iago/Scarpia archetype in Claggart (I wouldn't have been surprised had he sung "Billy, mi fai dimenticare Iddio" at the end of his soliloquy), the Pontius Pilate archetype of Vere (ditto Pilate's Dream from Jesus Christ Superstar), and the Christ-like archetype of Billy. Vere's struggle between the duty he has loved and served all his life and the longing to save Billy is more a central conflict of the opera than Claggart's scheming and his come-uppance.

John Daszak as Captain Vere
NY Times photo by Chang W. Lee

Nathan Gunn, even with his shirt on for the entire opera, gave an admirable performance as Billy Budd. His singing was beautiful, and he acted the naive, earnest, inherently good sailor convincingly. James Morris sang and acted Claggart well enough to elicit hisses at the curtain call, and my only real criticism is that there is no "ore" in the word "honor". As Captain Vere, John Daszak made an impressive Met debut. His large, bright tenor handled the vocal challenges well, and in acting the challenging role of Captain Vere, let us just say that scenery was chewed. I would gladly pay to hear and see him again.

It's not easy to keep track of the smaller roles. I have written in glowing terms before about the handsome Elliot Madore, and he again impressed as The Novice's Friend. (Is that how the poor lad is forced to list it on his resume?) The Novice himself was portrayed with a light, plaintive vocal quality and a palpable misery by Keith Jameson. The three officers Mr. Flint, Mr. Redburn and Lieutenant Ratcliffe (or as I like to call them, Patty, Maxine and Laverne) were nobly portrayed by Kyle Ketelson, Dwayne Croft and Ryan McKinny. Squeak, Mr. Claggart's henchman, was squeaked by Scott Scully. Met veterans Allan Glassman and John Cheek deserve praise for their portrayals of Red Whiskers, an impressed man, and Dansker, and older, wiser seaman.

Once again, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus deserves accolades as passionate as anyone else on stage -- much more passionate than some I've seen on that stage. The men of the chorus, along with supplemental members and boys of the children's chorus, gave a stunning performance of Mr. Britten's challenging music. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the aforementioned David Robertson, also met the extremely high standard we have come to expect from them.

I was delighted to run into dear Lucy, who posted her impressions about the opera before I did. Paul also posted his before I did. Glad to finally read them, now that I've finished this, and see that we all have similar opinions about the performance and production.

*Did you know the piano-vocal score retails for for over $100?! Sheesh!