From Glyndebourne, a triumphant Billy Budd comes to San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Britten, Billy Budd: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Lawrence Renes (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 20.9.2019. (HS)

John Chest (Billy Budd) and crewmen of the HMS Indomitable
(c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)


Director — Michael Grandage
Revival Stage director — Ian Rutherford
Production designer — Christopher Oram
Original Lighting designer — Paule Constable
Revival Lighting designer — David Manion


Captain Vere — William Burden
Billy Budd — John Chest
John Claggart — Christian Van Horn
Mr Redburn — Philip Horst
Mr Flint — Wayne Tigges
Mr Ratcliffe — Christian Pursell
Red Whiskers — Robert Brubaker
Novice — Brenton Ryan
Maintop — Christopher Colmenero
Squeak — Matthew O’Neill
Dansker — Philip Skinner

The unconventionality of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd makes it something to relish for those of us who crave its many meaty layers. But it can be off-putting to some, like the couple behind me at the intermission who complained about a ‘lack of arias.’

One hopes the vital energy of the cast — and especially, the orchestra — won them over. In the fifth of six performances, the musicians impressively articulated Britten’s score with color and clarity and laid bare the story’s themes. As in Melville’s novella of the same name, the opera is about power misused, innocence betrayed, and the lifelong recriminations of an honorable leader unable to act when he could have, in response to a murder on an English warship in 1797, during the French wars.

In Ian Rutherford’s direction of this revival of Michael Grandage’s 2010 Glyndebourne production, the undercurrents of the tale came through, too. The arching lines of a ship’s frame, calling to mind the bones of a whale, framed a stack of three decks reminiscent of (appropriately) a prison. The horizontal interlacing of timber — raised and lowered — created a versatile space for a complex stew of individual characters (29 in the program’s cast list).

As Billy, baritone John Chest made his San Francisco Opera debut in a role he has sung at Deutsche Oper Berlin. He looked the part of a handsome young innocent much loved by most of the crew and sang with welcome simplicity. One could have wished for more shading in his Act II aria known as ‘Billy in the Darbies’, but his pure silky tone and Lawrence Renes’s sensitive conducting of the soft ballad created a moment of stillness, much needed in an otherwise busy performance.

The standouts among the singers, however, were a couple of regular visitors to San Francisco, tenor William Burden and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn.

Burden lent depth of character to Captain William Fairfax Vere. His introductory narrative roiled with both wonder and regret. Interactions with his officers and, especially, the defining moments of Billy’s court-martial, were marvels of specificity.

As master-at-arms John Claggart, Van Horn wielded firm vocalization from the top to bottom of his range for one of opera’s nastiest villains, who concocts an accusation of mutiny against Billy. His Act I soliloquy conveyed the confused masculinity and jealousy that triggers his rage against Billy, and overall, his mien was terrifying enough to earn (good-natured) boos during the curtain call.

But as good as those three were, the driving force was the orchestra. Ever since their awe-inspiring work on Wagner’s Ring in 2017, this ensemble has gone from strength to strength. Act II opened with a steady, pulsating build-up to the big chorus, ‘This is our moment’, when the whole cast is on stage as their ship tracks down a French ship frigate in the mist. The interlude before Billy’s court-martial, a series of 34 sustained chords, each a different instrumental color, harmony and dynamic, was spellbinding in its portent of doom. In Billy’s song to the moon before his execution, the piccolo obbligato — played on a rare A-flat instrument to suggest the sound of the flute-like hornpipe — was especially haunting. Renes drew a strong rhythmic pulse throughout and kept impeccable balances at all dynamic levels, even with four red-uniformed field drummers on stage.

Among the outsized supporting cast, the standouts were bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Dansker — the grizzled seaman Billy befriends first — and tenor Brenton Ryan. The latter made the most of his moments as The Novice, the first young handsome deckhand who suffers Claggart’s random wrath.

In the end, the production made visible the oppression and vagaries of life on a warship, while the singers managed to look like believable sailors as they delivered Britten’s details. Aided and abetted by rousing work from the orchestra, the score made us feel the emotions that Melville’s novella might not.

Harvey Steiman

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