July 15, 2008

SFO Cast Carries Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’

By D.S. Crafts For the Journal

Once again we are at sea with the Santa Fe Opera. Several years ago the company successfully staged Benjamin Britten's opera about the mad fisherman Peter Grimes. Now an arresting new production of that same composer's "Billy Budd" opened Saturday night, the opera's first mounting of the revised version of the piece from 1961.

This story of the merciless execution of a young seaman aboard HMS Indomitable from the pen of Herman Melville takes place during the Napoleonic war between England and France. As a literary work it is considered second only to his "Moby Dick," while the opera is considered second only to Britten's earlier effort, "Peter Grimes."

The SFO may well have found the ideal Billy Budd in baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. His robust tone is perfectly attuned to the often spontaneous outbursts and boisterous naivet of the title character.

And while vocal suitability should always be first and foremost in the casting of any opera, it must be said, he looks the part splendidly, not unlike the young Terence Stamp who played the role in the 1962 film version of the story.

His final, "Farewell to ye, old Rights of Man" is the emotional peak of the production.

Santa Fe favorite William Burden appears in a role highly unlike the romantic leads in which we've seen him previously.

As Captain Vere, his fulgent lyric tenor lends a palpable sense of humanity to the character, perhaps even more than the man deserves. Vere is a moral coward distanced from the world by his isolation and unwavering sense of letterstrict "law and order."

In the vivid monologues, Burden shows himself equal to the task of dramatic parlando (declamatory) singing.

A committed pacifist and anti-militarist, Britten along with librettist E. M. Forster begin the opera with a scene in which a novice slips on deck and is sentenced to 20 lashes, decidedly moving in its depiction of maritime conditions.

As the novice, Keith Jameson brings exceptional sympathy to the character, as well as a clarion tenor voice of which one can certainly hope to hear more in future.

From the very moment of his entrance on stage Peter Rose as the master-at-arms John Claggart becomes the manifestation of evil one loves to hate.

With an imposing physical presence and stentorian voice, Rose demonically commands the stage as well as everyone around him, barely containing his disgust for the officers above him.

Melville wrote of the character that "in wantonness of malignity (he) would seem to partake of the insane." His maniacally misanthropic monologue "O beauty, handsomeness, goodness!" is one of the highlights of the evening.

Supporting characters too in this all-male cast are outstanding, especially the three officers, Timothy Nolen, Richard Stilwell and John Stephens.

While there is little to laugh at in this tragic tale, their off- the-cuff pronouncement at the captain's table, "Don't like the French," drew more than a few muted chuckles.

The large chorus here is literally overwhelming, at full volume all but drowning out the orchestra. At the helm of the production is veteran conductor Edo de Waart, a most welcome addition to the company as chief conductor.

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