02/27/2014 06:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Review: Billy Budd at L.A. Opera

Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd is set on a British warship in 1797, but it is not an heroic epic. The Brits seek out French enemies in the ocean mists, but never quite find them. The ever grim, press-ganged crew is cheered by the arrival of the handsome, forthright, able seaman Billy -- the perfect British seaman. But his very handsomeness and forthrightness get him hanged.

The crew of the Indomitable awaits the French...but never finds them.

Like much of Melville, Billy Budd is as more a treatise than a tale: a meditation on "maleness" as a philosophic quality. Melville loved the ambiguities hidden in the male drive for action and greater purpose. The ironies inherent in the male obsession with "good and evil." What better way to let these obsessions play out than by trapping a bunch of men aboard ship?

In 1951, Benjamin Britten turned Billy Budd into an opera sung entirely by men. Librettists E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier hewed closely to the novella, but added a clearer undercurrent of homoeroticism. The composer used the queasy musical modalities of the mid-20th century to work tension and ambiguity into sea shanties. The result was both revolutionary and darkly beautiful.

The production of Billy Budd now onstage at L.A. Opera as part of the ongoing Britten Centenary Celebration is striking, magnificently sung and emotionally involving -- even if it plays more to the cerebral than the seagoing.

The action is dominated by tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere -- the true protagonist of the piece, who we meet as an old man trying to make sense of what happened aboard his ship during his prime. Croft brings the perfect uncertainty to Vere: both musically and dramatically a strong, intelligent man who ultimately fails in his moral responsibility when he chooses to follow regulations over what he knows to be "the good."

Baritone Liam Bonner, singing Billy Budd for the first time, creates a gentle, innocent and lyrical hero: made imperfect only by his naivëte and persistent stutter. We may find it hard to believe that the rest of the crew looks up to him as a potent male specimen (as the libretto tells us again and again), but we like him plenty. Bonner's rendering of Budd's pre-execution aria, "Look! Through the port comes the moonlight astray" was both exquisite and perfectly unsentimental: a deeply affecting performance. Look for him singing this role worldwide.

The most powerful voice onstage is Greer Grimsley as the villain John Claggart, Master at Arms. Claggart finds himself physically and emotionally drawn to Budd -- and so decides he must destroy the lad. When he falsely charges Budd with mutiny, tragedy becomes inevitable. In the words of Captain Vere, Claggart is "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"

Grimsely's spectacular bass-baritone is known throughout the Wagnerian world -- he sang Wotan in the Ring cycle last year at both the Met and Seattle Opera. The force and control he brings to Claggart is remarkable, though we might have asked for a tad less control and a tad more internal conflict: a tad more erotic longing, and a tad less caution in his time onstage.

Supporting performances are all strong: James Creswell is an admirable Dansker, the older crewman who "never interferes in aught and never gives advice." And the officers are well portrayed and solidly sung by Patrick Blackwell, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Daniel Sumegi. But it's really the chorus of seamen that must dominate Billy Budd. Choral director Grant Gershon brought his usual and miraculous musical precision to the L.A. Opera Chorus -- though again, we might have asked for more musical risk in the crew -- a little less repressed, a little more British navy.

Liam Bonner, lower right, sings Billy Budd.

This lack of Redcoat pomp is, however, central to the the somewhat abstract 2000 production, designed by Francesca Zambello and revived for the current run. In Zambello's vision, the men are costumed as a scruffy, vaguely 19th-century lot -- but not at all like sailors and officers of a 74-gun Man-of-War. The deck of the ship has been simplified to a huge, raked platform with a single (and appropriately) crucifix-like mast. The infinite sea has been reduced to dark-blue panels. Cannon are flashing lights.

The result has just enough visual interest, but when Zambello loses the uniforms, we lose much of the dramatic tension of the shipboard pecking order; along with the conflict between the requirements of the military code and the requirements of the soul which lies at the heart of the drama. The staging is also somewhat static: fight scenes are tame, and again, the crew is so beaten-down that they don't seem to move as seamen at all. A little more hoisting and heaving would seem warranted by the price of admission. A little more testosterone would have fueled the drama just that much more.

But these are quibbles.

Conductor James Conlon clearly loves this music, and he brings great heart and commitment to the evening -- often supplying a force from the orchestra that pushes at the singers to do more onstage, and the result is a great night of opera. The Britten Centenary has brought us a remarkable Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring. Billy Budd continues a superb season at L.A. Opera -- filled with interesting artistic choices and persuasive performances. Make sure you don't miss out.

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First appeared in L.A. Downtown News