“Billy Budd” at SF Opera

“Billy Budd” at SF Opera

Carol A. Benet

With rolling music invoking the movement of the sea, the SF Orchestra under the able conducting of Lawrence Renes puts us into the spectacular setting replicating the claustrophobic interior of the British war ship the “Indomitable” during the French and British war of 1797.  

Like Debussy’s  famous “La Mer”, the rolling chords almost cause “la mal de mer” (seasickness) in this realistic yet impressionistic recreation of a scene from Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”, an opera now playing at the San Francisco Opera taken from an unfinished novella by Herman Melville.  This is Melville’s bicentennial and 100 years of the discovery of the lost manuscript.  

As in Melville’s “Moby Dick” there are questions about morality and the many possible answers on how man should behave towards one another.  After the lulling overture, the narrator, an old man Captain Vere (William Burden), tells the story of when he sentenced Billly Budd to death and the confusion of the time.  Vere is a learned man and is often seen reading and quoting from the classics that shed light on the past as well as present circumstances.

The three hour opera passes by in a flash because it is tense, moving and provocative.   The story begins when three men from the ship “Rights of Man”  are impressed into service on the “Indomitable”.  One of them is the young Billy Budd (John Chest) who is eager to perform his duty but makes the mistake of mentioning the “Rights of Man”, a code phrase signifying the goals of the new French nation with which this British ship is soon to enter battle. Britain is worried that if the French win the war, they will eventually kill the British king like they did their own.

After some harsh treatment of all the crew and a scene when of them (Mitchell Jones) was taken away for a beating for a minor infraction resulting in a punishment is so severe that he can no longer walk.  The Master-at-Arms, the wicked Claggart (Christian Van Horn), hears Budd say the words “Rights of Man” and he is immediately suspicious of him thinking he is a French sympathizer.  This starts the main theme of Claggart’s plot to destroy the handsome Budd, a subject of many a dissertation on the homo-eroticism in the text.  

Claggart tells his men to watch for Billy and sets a trap for anything that he might do to cause a mutiny.  Eventually the ship enters French waters and a battle ensues.  Christopher Oram’s powerful set is enhanced with a huge British flag waving in the background.   Movement is simulated by the crew pulling their lines and swaying back and forth. The director of the 40 man chorus on stage, Ian  Robertson, in this all male cast has  skillfully conducted them throughout to the wonderful word-less chorale near the end.  

The production was directed by Tony Award winning Michael Grandage with a revised stage direction of Ian Rutherford. Christopher Oram’s set design shows the ship from the inside, on the deck and a scene in Vere’s cabin  where he and two officers discuss the recent mutinies that frighten the officers here as a possible outcome for their own ship as well.

Billy Budd’s stammer is not always evident but when he is accused of inciting mutiny, he cannot defend himself against Claggart who has instructed the Novice (Brenton Ryan) to enticed Billy to lead a mutiny.  In his anger Billy Budd kills Claggart  and Vere must call for 

Budd’s hanging according to the Articles of War.   

At the very end when Vere returns to the stage as an old man, he regrets his decision to hang Billy thus leaving the opera in one of those quandaries that Melville always posed in his work about the and many possibilities and consequences of what is the right moral action.  

The libretto was created by the famous writer of Britten’s time E.M. Forster along with Eric Crozier.  The words are easily understood as many of the lyrics are repeated as in  poetry and there there are also supertitles.  

“Billy Budd” is one of the most beautiful operas ever written and this production, based on the one that was at the Glyndebourne Festival 2010 and later at the  Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is nothing less than spectacular.  Men of the sea as well as recreational sailors will appreciate it’s veracity with its authentic ship vocabulary and realistic props.

“Billy Budd” runs through September 22, 2019 at the SF Opera.  sfopera.com or 415 864 3330. 

 

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →