Britten : Billy BudNew York, Met, 2012 (Audio)
Director: David Robertson
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It is hard to believe that John Dexter’s production of Britten’s “Billy Budd,” which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night after a 15-year absence, was introduced back in 1978. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, talks about how essential it is to modernize the theatrical elements of opera. But few recent Met productions are bolder or fresher than Dexter’s staging of this great Britten work.
The performance benefited from the inspired conducting of David Robertson and from a strong cast headed by the baritone Nathan Gunn, taking on the title role for the first time at the Met. He has sung it to acclaim elsewhere, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in an arresting 2001 production by David McVicar.
Working with a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the Melville story, Britten composed “Billy Budd” in 1950-51, then revised it 10 years later, reshaping its four acts into two. On the surface the opera, with an all-male cast, tells of a British warship as it enters enemy French waters in 1797, focusing on the oppression of those men pressed into service against their will. Dexter, who died in 1990, places all the action on a multitiered set by William Dudley that shows a cross-section of the entire ship against an inky black background. The various levels, from below deck to topmasts, rise and fall fluidly and (please note, Robert Lepage) without a single creak.
In some ways “Billy Budd” is opera in the grand manner, with a pulsing, urgent score, massed choral scenes for the sailors, intricate ensembles and lush writing for a large orchestra. Yet Britten also presents a piercing psychological study of good and evil, innocence and twisted envy, and the ambiguity of attraction. Whole stretches of the score are vocally intimate and transparently orchestrated.
Though Billy is the title character, the opera revolves around the decent but essentially weak Captain Vere, whom we first meet in old age, still haunted by the events that forced him to sanction Billy’s death by hanging. The old Vere appears again in an epilogue. So the bulk of the opera is a flashback to 1797.
Vere was written for the tenor Peter Pears, who sang it at the Met when this production was new. John Daszak, a British tenor, made his Met debut on Friday as Vere and won a rousing ovation. Mr. Daszak’s singing was not flawless. In sustained high passages, especially in full top notes, he sometimes sounded constricted and shaky. But he is an intelligent and deeply expressive singer who makes every word count with impeccable English diction.
The bookish Vere prides himself on understanding the true natures of the men he oversees. But like many weak executives, he keeps a brutal enforcer at his side, the ruthless John Claggart, the master-at-arms, though Vere tries to shield himself from Claggart’s maniacal tactics until it is too late to protect Billy.
The bass-baritone James Morris, who sang the role when the Dexter production was introduced 34 years ago, is back again. He still gives a chilling portrayal. This stiff, repressed Claggart threatens terrified young sailors into doing his bidding. When Billy is brought onboard, all the men are touched, even smitten, by the young man’s guilelessness and beauty. “Baby Billy” they call him. But Claggart is undone by a warped combination of suppressed desire for Billy and hatred of his decency.
The good-looking Mr. Gunn, in a blond wig that may be a mistake, affectingly conveys Billy’s boyish eagerness and innocence. As a foundling child who does not even know his age, Billy alone among the men is happy to be part of something. Mr. Gunn’s singing is a model of knowing your own voice and using it wisely. His sound, though not enormous, is robust, penetrating and warm; his phrasing smooth and refined. A born actor, he sings as if speaking the words.
Among the standout performances of this large cast, too many to cite, is the bass John Cheek, touching as the wizened old seaman Dansker, Billy’s friend. The sweet-voiced tenor Keith Jameson was heartbreaking as the fearful novice who bungles into trouble and is flogged.
Mr. Robertson led a sure-paced and engrossing performance, drawing textured and colorful playing from the Met orchestra. The men of the Met chorus, and the chorus master, Donald Palumbo, deserved every moment of the huge ovation they received.
(Edited from The New York Times)