There’s probably some fancy name for a pesky condition plenty of people have to put up with, but we’ll just call it word aversion for now. You know. It’s about a word you want purged from the dictionary, for awhile anyway. Like “hopefully” or “awesome.” Near the top of my own list of words to expunge? Try “fabulous,” a word dripping with tinseled insincerity.
Still, in the case of the production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd that just opened at the Santa Fe Opera, I’ll make an exception.
Granted, it’s only a pedantic exception, based on a root sense of the adjective: being about a fable, per se, with inherent allegorical or mythic connections. Several if not all of Melville’s works seem fabulous in that sense, seeking to explicate the darker complexities of human nature. Think Ahab or Benito Cereno. And think, especially, of his last, undoubtedly fabulous, unfinished, posthumously published work: Billy Budd, Sailor.
Oh, my. There’s been so much ink spilled on that one. It‘s a murky, misty game anybody can play. Claggart as demon; Claggart as ultimate nihilist. Billy as angel or Christ or proto-Parsifal. Vere as tormented Everyman; Vere as Abraham without the ram. Not to mention the simple allure of a homoerotic love triangle that explains everything. Uh-huh.
For Britten, mist becomes a central metaphor, especially in the opera’s second half where at first a literal, maddening mist stymies action, hides outlines and heightens ambiguity. At the end of Melville’s novella we’re still suspended in a mist, not quite lost, but puzzled and wary of simple responses to tough moral issues. In fashioning a satisfactory framework for the opera, Britten’s librettists, EM Forster—that master of misunderstood relationships—and Eric Crozier, had to attempt a penetration of the novella’s mists. Britten’s music, while preserving the Melvillean tang of ambiguity, had to achieve a resolution that encompasses integrity and moral clarity.
And it does. He provides skittery passages aplenty suggesting the sea’s immensity and human frailty before it. He offers fanfares galore suggesting militant bravado in the face of that immensity. Above all, as the action nears its conclusion, he writes brilliant, resolute chord structures that emerge from tonal complexity to affirm value and purpose.
The SFO’s gleaming new production justifies Britten’s arduous, hugely rewarding effort on nearly every level. First, there’s Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose performance in the title role quite simply ranks among the most memorable SFO debuts ever. I’m thinking von Stade, te Kanawa, Terfel, for starters. It’s not just the voice, though that’s magnificent enough—warm, open, glistening with confident power. It’s not just Rhodes’ charismatic physical presence—you can’t take your eyes off the guy. It’s his uncanny ability to be the fabulous character of Melville’s and Britten’s imagination.
He’s matched by every member of this show’s sprawling cast. William Burden, in a startling contrast with the lighter roles he’s taken in the past, sings the tortured Vere with assurance. He’s at his best in the solitary prologue and epilogue. Peter Rose is a menacing, black-toned Claggart, though the direction too often turns him into a melodramatic stage villain. As Mr. Redburn, Richard Stillwell returns to the SFO stage in a powerful characterization. He’s got some history with this opera.
Thirty years ago, he’d himself been a memorable Billy Budd in John Dexter’s stirring production at the Met. Among the many, many lesser roles, Thomas Hammons’ Dansker and especially Keith Jameson as the pathetic Novice stand out. The formidable choral passages are well-prepared by Suzanne Sheston.
Edo de Waart, familiar to SFO audiences from past successes in the pit, returns, now as the company’s chief conductor, to lead a highly charged reading of Britten’s challenging score. A few muddy attacks marred the chordal progressions near the end of the second act, but clearly this is a Billy Budd of stature and grace. It’s also, frankly, a potential disaster for any stage director, with a huge cast moving from quarterdeck to main deck to captain’s quarters to crew deck.
This production lists nearly 70 men and boys in the ship’s company, making it, I’m thinking, among the largest in SFO’s history. Paul Curran deals skillfully with immense staging problems, especially in the hair-raising, beat-to-quarters choral episode when the crew prepares to engage a French frigate. He provides a stunning coup de théâtre at the epilogue that may haunt your imagination. Robert Innes Hopkins provides an effective if not very authentic warship and suitable costumes.
On a personal, irrelevant, memorial note: One of my unforgettable undergraduate classes was a survey called “Drama since Ibsen,” taught by Robert Chapman. He’d co-authored with Louis O Coxe the stage version of Billy Budd, a highly successful Broadway show that later inspired Peter Ustinov’s film. Forster and Crozier consulted Chapman while preparing their libretto for the opera. I’m sure he gave them good advice. He taught me plenty about the stage, too.
9 pm Wednesday, July 16
Various times and dates through Aug. 21
Santa Fe Opera
7 miles north of Santa Fe