Avoiding the potential melodrama of a male love triangle, the Met’s rarely seen production of Billy Budd maintains a grave integrity and a compassion for its characters.
An intriguing companion piece for the concurrent late season run of The Makropulos Case, Billy Budd has a similar dramatic focus, with text and storyline more prevalent than melody and arias. Both operas also feature a prized title role, with Nathan Gunn taking the honors here as the beautiful, good-hearted sailor Billy Budd.
John Dexter’s 1978 production takes place on the deck of a grand, lifelike warship in the late 1700s. William Dudley’s set creates a serious tone, and is also quite a spectacle. Surrounded by pitch black, the decks of the highly detailed ship rise and fall to create various locations aboard the HMS Indomitable. Act two’s battle scene, featuring four levels of the ship, at least 100 men on stage and live cannon fire, was truly eye-popping.
Dudley’s costumes are also highly natural and realistic. Military uniforms are most impressive and the sailor’s outfits have a well worn appearance rather than the impossibly pristine look often seen in theatre. New mate Billy is set off against the grimy crew in gleaming white with a yellow neck kerchief.
Bookended by the reflective remembrances of Captain Vere, the tragic tale sees the noble Billy persecuted at the behest of the darkly troubled Master-at-arms Claggart, jealous and lustful of Billy’s fresh beauty and youth. Accused of inciting mutiny, Billy’s stutter leaves his fist as his only expression and he strikes Claggart, accidentally killing him. Vere is paralysed with fear in front of his fellow officers, afraid of betraying his true feelings by showing favour to the golden-haired boy by pardoning him. Billy, having recognised in the captain a fellow soul, makes an extraordinary act of generosity and love by blessing the captain just before being put to death.
Britten’s music, whilst not tuneful, is extremely evocative and atmospheric. The wordless sequence of music that represents Vere telling Billy he is to be put to death is the work of a composer at the height of his powers. E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s libretto is a work of beauty in its own right.
Highlighting the splendid text is the superb diction from the entire cast. The company, consisting entirely of men, sings with strength and power, a feat which is matched by the first-rate acting. The naturalistic, understated performing style adopted by all is a large factor in keeping the opera well clear of melodrama.
Gunn (below) is perfectly cast, a completely open and robust performer. The audience takes him straight to their hearts, making the ensuing tragedy all the more affecting. Gunn’s smooth and supple baritone is a pleasure to hear.
English tenor John Daszak turns in a performance of equally high quality, singing the role superbly and characterising Vere right through to his skillful use of body language.
James Morris (below) brings an unprecedented level of experience to Claggart, having sung the role at the premiere of this production in 1978. Morris sings with clarity and strength, adding multiple layers of complexity to the chilling role.
This all-too-brief season of Billy Budd must surely be considered a success on every level.
Photos: Simon Parris (except #2 Met Opera)