Billy Budd at SF Opera | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine-October 2019 | www.scene4.com

Could it be Sex?

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
at San Francisco Opera

Renate Stendhal

Am I the only audience member who sometimes wonders why operatic stage sets have gone gloomy, muddy, dark in the last few years? Story and libretto seem hardly to matter any more in this new fashion: the stage is plunged into cave-like semi-obscurity. If there is a crowd onstage, like the many groups of sailors in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, you can often hardly make out in the gloom who is singing. Given the financial struggle of today’s opera houses, I wonder how much money could be saved in electricity by just not turning on the lights?

Billy Budd premiered in 1951 and was revised by Britten a decade later. The libretto, by novelist E.M. Forster and Britten’s theatrical advisor Eric Crouzier, follows the posthumous novella of the same name by Herman Melville, set on a British war ship, the Indomitable, during the French wars of 1797. San Francisco Opera presented a revival of a Glyndbourne production (2010) by a British team under Tony-Award-winning theater director Michael Grandage in his first operatic foray.

The striking stage set by Chistopher Oram presents a structural cross-section of a historic war ship, recalling the carcass of a whale (Moby Dick?) as much as a prison. The open roof-slats move downwards to close off scenes under deck with poorly lit cabins, but most of the libretto asks to be played out on the top deck in plain daylight (and under changing weathers), so there is no good reason why neither sky nor sea nor weather are present here, even though they are often evoked by the libretto. Perhaps the semi-obscurity is meant to profit the music, Britten’s rich orchestration with unusual instruments and haunting dissonances, this time under the baton of Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes. The beautiful, recurring chorus of the sailors, “Heave… heave!” sounds mysterious and ominous, as if partly emanating from the dark netherworld of the ship. The San Francisco Opera chorus (under chorus master Ian Robertson) once again displays superb vocal beauty and physical presence throughout.

But how is Billy, the beautiful stand-out lad of the story, supposed to stand out from the darkish mass of sailors crowding the deck in the meager, brown-grey light? (There are altogether 75 men involved in this production.) Billy is supposed to be the embodiment of youth, beauty, goodness, and his radiance is supposed to captivate everybody on the Indomitable, from the mates to the midshipmen, from the officers to Captain Vere and the cruel master-at-arms, John Claggart. You would expect the director and lighting designer to give Billy some shine or at least grant him the clothes he wears in the novella: "white jumpers and duck trousers." But there is none of that.

Audiences who are not familiar with this major work by the British composer would also expect the irresistible Billy to have some fierce, gorgeous, memorable  lines to sing,  like for example the great sailor song “Frisch weht der Wind” in Tristan and Isolde, or the mournful song of the sailor Hylas in Les Troyens. But for some strange reason, Britten doesn’t give Billy much of anything until the very end of the opera, when his life is in the balance. Also oddly, he doesn’t accord his hero the privilege of being a tenor—the tenor role is reserved for Captain Vere (the role Britten’s lover Peter Pears created) who must decide about Billy’s fate. “Show, don’t tell!” one wants to call out to the librettists as one hears again and again from the crew how good and beautiful Billy is and how everyone loves him, even, or especially, the nasty master-at-arms. Even though Billy has the flaw of stuttering under stress, Claggart cannot bear Billy’s beauty and goodness and vows to destroy the man.

So what we have in this opera is an archetypal, but rather abstract clash between good and evil, and the possible reasons for Billy’s demise are kept as murky as the lighting and direction in this production. Could it be sexual attraction? Sexual envy and jealousy? Does Billy create unbearable longings in everyone, even the older cynic?

Many great productions of the opera bring out the homoerotic subtext that Melville apparently took for granted and that Britten, who was gay, was squeamish about (which hampered gay author E.M. Forster in writing his libretto). Director Grandage does nothing with this suggestion. His production seems to opt for some kind of disembodied, perhaps puritanical neutrality that greatly minimizes the interest and relevance of the piece for today’s audience.

Billy is sung by young lyric baritone John Chest in his role debut. Chest perfectly looks the part in his head shots, but he isn’t encouraged to bring enough embodiment and charisma to the role until the very end, when he is alone on stage awaiting his death. Then he finally gets to
sing, and Chest does this beautifully, with a modest, believable innocence.

Until the end, however, Chest stands stiffly on wide-spread legs, perhaps in an attempt to convey masculine self-assurance, but looking more passive than self-assured. His movements, especially when he stutters and can’t get more words out than “I… I… I…”, are like those of a wooden marionette. During the long first act, only Claggart stands out with his Jago-like monologue of hatred and willful destruction, sung by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn with biting harshness and darkness of tone.

The only other stand-out in Act I is the “Novice,” American tenor Brenton Ryan, as he is dragged across the stage with a naked, bloody back after the flogging Claggart ordered out of malice. It’s the only moment of nakedness among these sailors, and Ryan has the exact look of vulnerable youth and beauty that one would expect in Billy Budd.

Ryan also convincingly plays the traitor in Claggart’s service in the second act, when he tries to buy Billy’s agreement to lead a (fictitious) mutiny on the ship. Billy is too pure and na茂ve to see through the machinations of Claggart, and doesn’t seem to know what it means when his pal Dansker (Phillip Skinner) warns him that the master-at-arms “has it in for him.” Suddenly confronted by Claggart’s authoritative defamations in front of the captain, Billy’s stutter makes him unable to defend himself. His sole response is a blow that strikes Claggart dead on the spot.

Attacking a superior officer is a crime punishable through death by hanging, unless the captain and his officers decide to spare his life. The blow has no real violence or scenic conviction, but John Chest’s Billy has his first moment of raw emotion when he must leave the captain’s cabin as a prisoner. Billy repeatedly pleads with him, “Captain Vere, save me! … I’d have died for you, save me!”” Chest does this with life-and-death urgency, and also with an innocent trust in the benevolence of the admired captain.

Here, finally, one feels with Billy, and the drama of the tale finally kicks in with the question: couldn’t he be saved? As it turns out, Vere is as speechless as Billy. Even though his officers hope to hear a verdict of mercy because Billy “was provoked,” Vere can’t bring himself to utter it —something he will regret for the rest of his life. Captain Vere—sung with clear-ringing authority and subtle shadows of doubt by American tenor William Burden—leaves us with the mystery, as also in the novella, why he let military law and order run its course and destroy Billy. Is it the paranoid atmosphere of French revolutionary ideas and fears of mutiny on British vessels? Many directors have hinted that Vere can’t afford to defend the man he calls “the angel sent by God” because it might bespeak the love “that dare not speak its name.” All we are told by director Grandage is what the libretto tells us: Vere himself goes to tell Billy that he will be hanged.

What happens now, is a remarkable musical shift. The orchestra goes into something like a death march, followed by extended Wagnerian keys and themes of redemption and transfiguration (like an allusion to the ending of G枚tterd盲mmerung).  The up-and-down, back-and-forth of major and minor arpeggios sounds as if Britten were undecided about Vere and Billy, as if he were trying to sum up the whole story of good and evil, beauty and imperfection, wondering whether there can be acceptance and maybe even forgiveness. There is also a strong echo from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw: the moment when the Governess sings ecstatically about the beauty of nature, with bird song in the flute and harp  accompaniment, just before she experiences the touch of evil. Billy, alone in a pool of blue light, sings his good-bye to life with the commentary from these instruments (bringing up a strange echo of Lucia di Lammermoor’s famous mad-scene dialogue with the flute). More than one critic has commented that this is the one really well written part of the libretto, because it is pure Melville, part of the ballad that ends his novella.

    “Look: Through the port comes the moonshine astray,
    It tips the guard’s cutlass and silvers this nook;
    But ‘twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day…”

In the final scene, with all men on deck, while the rope is being prepared for him, Billy’s last words are, “God bless you, Captain Vere!”

    Photos - Cory Weaver SF Opera

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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2019 Renate Stendhal
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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