Though Evil Triumphs, Beauty Prevails in LA Opera’s Billy Budd

United StatesUnited States Britten: Billy Budd: LA Opera, James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 22.2.14-16.3.14 (JRo)

Billy Budd _OT1 _February 16, 2014
Los Angeles Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’. Photo: Robert Millard

Billy Budd: Liam Bonner
Captain Vere: Richard Croft
John Claggart: Greer Grimsley
Mr. Redburn: Anthony Michaels-Moore
Mr. Flint: Daniel Sumegi
Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Patrick Blackwell
Red Whiskers: Greg Fedderly
Donald: Jonathan Michie
Dansker: James Creswell
Bosun: Craig Colclough
Novice: Keith Jameson
First Mate: Paul LaRosa
Second Mate: Daniel Armstrong
Novice’s Friend: Valentin Anikin
Maintop: Vladimir Dmitruk
Squeak: Matthew O’Neill
Arthur Jones: Museop Kim

Conductor: James Conlon
Original Production: Francesca Zambello
Director: Julia Pevzner
Scenery and Costume Designer: Alison Chitty
Lighting Designer: Alan Burrett
Fight Director: Ed Douglas

 Last evening, at the LA Opera, evil was palpable, insinuating itself in every corner of the house; and though innocence was destroyed, Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, triumphed.

 In the grandest of all his operas, Benjamin Britten and his librettists, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, created an opera of sweeping power and existential beauty.  Isolated on board the H.M.S. Indomitable, a ship rife with fear, the artists and chorus of the LA Opera navigated the dark world of Melville’s novella.  With clarity, refinement, and power, Britten’s operatic seascape was brought to heart-wrenching life.

 Like a Poseidon of the pit, James Conlon conjured all the elements that make up Britten’s exacting score: myriad textures, recurring motifs, and haunting rhythms.  The orchestra became the voice of Melville, himself, commenting, seeking, and despairing.  Conlon drew a delicate transparency from his excellent musicians, so crucial in contrasting the lower ranges of the male voices.

 From the moment he stepped onboard the Indomitable, baritone Liam Bonner was wholly believable as Billy Budd: enthusiastic, handsome, innocent, confused, loyal, unaware of his own charisma and strength.  From the exuberance of his first act aria, “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” to his second act tender, “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” Bonner’s baritone was both robust and delicate, producing musical shadings that conveyed both the pathos and fervor of this tragic hero.

 As the conflicted Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, tenor Richard Croft, masterfully provided the vocal balance necessary for the opera, surrounded as the character is by baritones and bass-baritones.  With his elegant and expressive voice, caressing each word of the text, Croft conveyed all the agonies and angst of a man who sacrifices his moral center to the letter of the law, ultimately condemning Billy to an unjust death.  Vere’s character, so central to the unfolding drama, remains an enigma; and though his actions are perplexing, it is his conundrum that makes this drama linger in the mind and get under the skin.

 Driving the tragedy of Billy Budd, we have the monstrous, John Claggart, Master-at-Arms, and the embodiment of evil.  Conveying the dark shadings of Claggart’s character through his potent bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley’s performance was at its best when in concert with his victims.  Feeding off the helplessness of the weak, he was convincing enough; but in his Act One, Scene Three credo, when he sang of his depravity (“O beauty, a handsomeness, goodness would that I never encountered you…”), he appeared overly conflicted.  After all, this is a predator, and sexual repression aside, he is unscrupulous in his desire to destroy.  I longed for a little more reserve – more Dracula perhaps, less Freudian unease.

 Originally staged by Francesca Zambello in 1995 at the Royal Opera House in London, and later performed in 2000 here in Los Angeles, the current production was directed by Julia Pevzner, who met all the challenges of the opera’s demanding logistics.  The sets, designed by Alison Chitty, were handsome in their minimalist approach, but had certain defects.  Trapezoidal panels covered in what looked like navy-blue striped wallpaper, meant to evoke the sea, unfortunately overtook the sides of the stage, blocking views for a large portion of the audience.  I longed for a hint of water and sky, for a glimpse of the infinite sea and starry firmament.  More successful was the double tiered deck, which, when lowered, created the upper deck, but when raised, revealed the ship’s interior.  Particularly thrilling was the conversion of the ship at rest to battle-ready mode.  The movement of the men as they mounted their battle stations, then began firing on the French ship, was a tour de force and a tableau vivant worthy of Delacroix or Gericault.

 Under Grant Gershon’s superb direction, the men of the LA Opera chorus delivered a rousing battle scene.  The audience was enveloped in the experience of sound, drama, and art coming together to create an undeniable spectacle.  Elsewhere, the chorus exhibited mastery, from the sailors’ shantey, “O heave! O heave away, heave,” to their terrifying cries of disgust after Billy’s hanging.

 As officers Redburn and Flint, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Daniel Sumegi were notable, not only offering comic relief in their duet condemning the French; but also in their mounting anxiety over the potential for mutiny.  Michaels-Moore gave a stirring account of his character’s experience on the Nore, an English ship that, in reality, suffered a mutiny in 1797.  In fact, the historical mutinies at Spithead and on the Nore create the background atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire opera.

 James Creswell was a sympathetic Dansker, who offers advice and comfort to Billy.  With his rich and luminous bass, Creswell gave a gratifying portrayal of the wise and world-weary old sailor.  And as the stricken and fearful Novice, Keith Jameson, with his cowered body language and agile tenor, embodied the unwilling instrument of Claggart’s scheme to compromise Billy.

 The sacrifice of the beautiful Billy, too naïve and trusting for the rough world, reaches its emotional apex in the quietest of all the scenes in the opera.  Alone, shackled, and awaiting his execution, he sings his farewells to his shipmates, the sea, and the grandeur of life.  As Bonner sang his last aria and our hearts contracted (and I confess, my tears flowed), we were held spellbound in this poetic evocation of a life half lived.

 Jane Rosenberg