LA Opera's Billy Budd - A Fascinating Study of Innocence Betrayed

 

 Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd at the L.A. Opera is a sublime interpretation of the classic American story by Herman Melville.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd

 

The staging, orchestra and singing are all exquisite, in top form. I found it to be a touching and yet ethereal story of how “goodness, beauty and handsomeness,” as the character Billy Budd is described, can be destroyed not only by those with evil intentions but also by a system of rules and a kind-hearted leader, Captain Vere, who has committed himself to follow those rules.

Richard Croft as Captain Vere in the Prologue

 

For it is just as much the story of Capt. Vere as of Budd. The captain in many ways is the king of his vessel, the Indomitable, a warship which is out to save England from the hated French. Vere is a thoughtful and conscientious man who looks back on the story he lived. As an old man in the opening scene, he proclaims that he has always tried to be fair. And yet being fair and following the rules have set him up for years of mental and spiritual agony before he finally finds peace within himself.

 

Ship's deck with officers rises up to reveal crew belowdecks

 

Billy Budd is a sweet, good-natured and attractive young man, an icon of innocence. When pressed into service, he joins the shipmates enthusiastically. He is cheerful, popular and loves everyone. But he has one small disability: When he gets upset, he stammers. It is this one imperfection that works against him, because when he is tongue-tied, he cannot defend himself. This leads to his striking out physically in frustration, which ultimately spells his doom.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd and Matthew O'Neill (holding knife) as Squeak

 

 I can’t help thinking about parallels in my own experience. As an animal rights activist, this situation is not unfamiliar to me. Many similar stories have been told by animal rescuer friends who frequent overcrowded shelters. There they find many beautiful, sweet and innocent animals who are already betrayed simply by the fact that they find themselves in these circumstances. At times, when the level of stress in a sensitive dog or cat is high, the animal may feel trapped and abandoned, and may bite or react inappropriately. Thus these innocent yet unfortunate beings can be considered “unadoptable” and sent to the euthanasia room. Like the innocent Billy Budd, they are voiceless and cannot stick up for themselves. Sometimes a wise rescuer sees this injustice and saves the animal, sometimes at the last minute.

 

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart (top) with Keith Jameson as the Novice

 

Although everyone on the ship’s crew really wants to save Billy, there is no way out for him. As long as the captain can’t rationalize it himself, he is stuck with the rules. Even in his last moment of life, Billy calls out, “God bless Captain Vere,” in much the same way we hear about dogs who kiss the euthanizers who are in the act of injecting them.

 

Left to right: Jonathan Michie (Donald), Greg Fedderly (Red Whiskers) and James Creswell (Dansker)

 

I found this opera to be very moving. The setup on the ship’s deck is striking, with its huge mast in the shape of a cross, bringing home in a not so subtle way the Christ-like character of Billy Budd. Hearing the men’s chorus, which must number over a hundred, was worth the price of admission. The voices of main characters of Billy Budd (Liam Bonner) Captain Vere (Richard Croft) and the villain John Claggart (Greer Grimsley) - are gorgeous. The Claggart Master-at-Arms character reminded me of Salieri and his jealousy of Mozart. And the vicious Claggart’s homosexual/homophobic passion is thrilling. The young men on the ship, contraltos who chime in on occasion, hit just the right notes.

 

Richard Croft as Captain Vere as he appears during the flashback

 

Britten’s music, absent of traditional arias, is more like an intense film score, dramatizing every emotion and theme to the hilt. The music  heightens the individual moments and conflicts, and I found it very exciting.

 

 I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this opera with its war themes and male orientation, but I found the story extremely well told. It kept me on the edge of my seat. And I was enthralled by the characters, the story and the music. I found the layers of metaphysical and spiritual themes uplifting. Excellent job to conductor James Conlon for bringing this to life, to director Julia Pevzner, and to chorus master Grant Gershon, as well as to all involved in this wonderful production. I hope many people will be able to experience this brilliant offering of Billy Budd.

 

 Georja Umano is an actress and animal activist.

  

Photos by Robert Millard courtesy LA Opera.

 

LA Opera schedule for Billy Budd

 

 

 

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