Review: ‘Billy Budd’ presented by San Francisco Opera at War Memorial Opera House (*****)

by Charles Kruger

John Chest stars in the title role of “Billy Budd” at SF Opera. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

In their publicity material promoting their wonderful and deeply moving production of the opera, “Billy Budd,” SF Opera provides this summary: “Meet Billy. He’s handsome, honest and good. He’s also doomed.”

That is accurate and it brings to mind the obvious question: why should such a wonderful young man be doomed? What brings about his terrible fate? How is it that innocent good people seem so often to be singled out for special suffering? Melville’s unfinished novella, like his greatest masterpiece, “Moby Dick,” is about the perennial problem of evil. It is a complex work, and fortunately, Britten’s librettist was E. M. Forster, perhaps the greatest English novelist of his generation. Forster will be recognized by audiences for the film adaptions of his books, notably “A Passage To India” and “A Room With A View,” and the gay-themed “Maurice.” The point to be made is that “Billy Budd,” in both its original form on the written page, and in Forster’s stage adaptation, is a very great literary work, open to many paths of interpretation.

The story runs thus: In 1797, England is at war with France and the HMS Indomitable (where the action is set), captained by “Starry” Vere, is sailing into enemy waters to do battle. It being wartime, the Captain is always in need of crew and it is his habit when meeting an English merchant ship at sea to grab several sailors and press them into military service. As the opera opens, this is occurring, and one of the pressed sailors is the uncannily handsome and apparently altogether kind and decent Billy Budd, whose enthusiastic affability quickly wins the affection of Captain and crew who call him “Baby” Budd, for his innocence and appeal. But for reasons obscure, Officer John Claggert takes an immediate dislike to Billy and sets out to ruin him. Eventually, Claggert succeeds in falsely implicating Billy in a non-existent plot to mutiny, leading to Billy’s execution. The story is told from the perspective of Captain Vere, who must give the order to hang Billy, having no legal recourse to avoid it, but feels moved by evil forces beyond his control and never gets over his despair at these sad events.

The puzzle at the heart of Billy Budd is why Claggert, for no adequate reason, should attack and destroy that which is clearly good and innocent. Like the great white whale, Moby Dick, Claggert appears to be an unmotivated force of idiot evil, a mysterious force of nature that knows no justice. He also reminds us of Shakespeare’s Iago, whose motivations for destroying the good Othello are similarly flimsy.

Many critical readers of Billy  Budd correctly call attention to what seems to be Claggert’s physical attraction to the handsome sailor, and the gay subtext of the piece is widely acknowledged. Many past productions have emphasized this aspect of the story, and, in fact, it is known that E. M. Forster felt very strongly that it should be a major component of the piece. Still, without denying this element, it does not seem sufficient to entirely explain Claggert’s actions. After all, this is a ship full of men without women, many of whom are clearly attracted to Billy, and it is certainly an accepted fact that homosexual affairs were commonplace on sailing vessels in the 1700s. While this production is certainly homoerotic in many places and doesn’t try to hide this subtext, it is not given emphasis. For that reason, some viewers might find the production homophobic and argue that this is a closeted Billy Budd. I do not think so, however. Both approaches (emphasizing the homosexual storyline or leaving it as deep subtext) are legitimate approaches to this work. I will say, however, that the inclusion of Larry Rothe’s bizarre critical essay in the program is puzzling, to say the least. Rothe seems determined to argue that Melville never intended there to be any significant homosexual content to Billy Budd (or even to Moby Dick) and goes out of his way to argue (absurdly) that Melville did not have “a preoccupation with the intimacies of male bonding.” This is a view with which most contemporary scholars would disagree, and few would try to insist that homosexual feeling is not a major theme in Melville’s work, not just Billy Budd. The inclusion of this frankly homophobic essay in the program notes, without any counterargument, is disrespectful to the work and to a thinking contemporary audience.

Having dealt now with the literary challenges of this opera, let us turn to the magnificent music, magnificently performed by a wonderful cast and orchestra. Britten’s score is controversial: some love it to distraction, while there are those that find it repetitive and dull. Count me among the lovers. Nowhere in the canon (except, perhaps, for Wagner) are musical ideas fitted more perfectly to emotional content. The orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, plays with precision, wondrous dynamics, and beautiful bursts of sweetness.

As Captian Vere, William Burden’s acting and singing are superb. He perfectly captures the Captain’s ambivalence and tragedy. John Chest, making his company debut as Billy Budd, is heartbreakingly effective. He has the requisite beauty, and his musicianship and acting are impeccable. His performance of Billy Budd’s several arias displays a smoothness of tone and a gorgeous pianissimo which he uses to great dramatic effect. His voice is unusually supple and changes dramatically depending on what he wishes to express: full and loud and joyful when he climbs the mast to take his position as Foretopman and sings “Billy Budd, king of the birds!,” and sinking to the depths of innermost melancholy in his gentle aria sung on the eve of his death, “Look through the port comes the moonshine.”

As the evil Claggert, Christian Van Horn’s piercing bass-baritone can literally make the spine tingle. He is a superb villain, charming and deceitful, powerful and hate-filled. He tears into this difficult role with the requisite gusto, accepting and reveling in the villainy.

Billy Budd, to this reviewer, is Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, an extraordinary piece of dramatic and musical art, and the current production is  as good as its genius deserves.

And, it is worth noting that when I attended, as the company took its final bow to many cries of “Bravo,” the young lady in the seat behind me turned to her companion to announce: “Oh my god, he really is HOT!”

Which pretty much describes this excellent production, as well as its star performer.

“Billy Budd” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 22. For further information, click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Billy Budd” by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the short novel by Herman Melville. Conductor: Lawrence Renes. Production: Michael Grandage. Revival Stage Director: Ian Rutherford. Production Designer: Christopher Orem. Original Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Revival Lighting Designer: David Manion. Chorus Director: Ian Robinson. Dance Master: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 


Captain Vere: William Burden. First Mate: Sidney Outlaw. Second Mate: Kenneth Overton. Mr. Flint: Wayne Tigges. Hurt Sailor: Mitchell Jones. Bosun: Edward Nelson. Midshipmen: Talinn Hatti, MarvinValdez, Curtis Resnick, Lucas B. Willcuts. Donald: John Brancy. Maintop” Christopher Colmenero. A Novice: Brenton Ryan. Squeak: Matthew O’Neill. A Voice: William Bryan. Mr. Redburn: Philip Horst. Mr. Ratcliff: Christian Pursell. John Claggart: Christian Van Horn. Red Whiskers: Robert Brubaker. Arthur Jones: Hadleigh Adams. Billy Budd; John Chest. Novice’s Friend: Eugene Villanueva. Dansker: Philip Skinner. Cabin Boy: Benjamin Drever. First Sailor Solo: William Bryan. Second Sailor Solo: Jere Torkelsen. Sailor with Earring: William Bryan. Third Sailor Solo: Chester Pidduck. Gunnar’s Mate: Anders Fröhlich.



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