Review: Superlative – Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Opera Wind, August 14, 2008

Santa Fe Opera, now well into its second half-century, finally has chosen to include Britten’s 57 year old opera, “Billy Budd”, into its repertoire. Although it is hardly appropriate to say it was worth the wait for the first presentation of an opera that many other opera companies have presented several times, there are features about this production that make it a wholly satisfying presentation of this extraordinary masterpiece.

In fact, it is my pick for one of this website’s “Superlatives” – so far, the best production of a mid-20th century opera that I have experienced.

Leading the team that collaborated on the new production was Scottish Director Paul Curran, who, at the end of this year assumes the position of Artistic Director of the Den Norske (Norwegian) Opera.  The opera’s conductor was Edo de Waart.

[Below: the impressment of Billy Budd and two other seamen aboard the “HMS Indomitable”; edited image, based on Ken Howard photo provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

This is Curran’s second production developed for a  Santa Fe Opera premiere of a major Britten opera. Three seasons ago he directed a well-received “Peter Grimes” starring Anthony Dean Griffey.

As in the 2005 Santa Fe “Grimes”, Curran’s set and production designer was Robert Innes Hopkins and his lighting designer was Rick Fisher. (Washington National Opera will be mounting the Santa Fe Curran-Hopkins production next March starring Christopher Ventris, while Griffey travels to San Diego Opera in April to perform Grimes in a John Copley production.)

For almost 50 years, the “standard” production of “Billy Budd” has been a shortened two-act version that Britten developed in 1960 for a BBC telecast. Britten had been upset with his original four act version with multiple intermissions and some other weaknesses he perceived in it and made some sizable cuts in the opera.  Because this version seemed to have the Britten imprimatur, it was considered the composer’s final thoughts on the opera.

Even so, in the BBC interviews that took place in association with the telecast, he can be heard saying “If I’m any good as a composer, the music will show a greater depth than perhaps I’m intending”.

In the Santa Fe production, when one hears the restored music (heard also in the 1997 Kent Nagano recording of the opera with Thomas Hampson) and sees the accompanying drama that Britten cut from the original version for the BBC, it becomes clear that there is indeed greater depth in the original music of the opera than perhaps Britten himself recognized.

A “Billy Budd” Sea Change

Even though wonderful music from the 1951 production is restored, Britten’s critique of his initial version has been heeded.  Importantly, the two act scheme for the BBC has been maintained.  In fact, the first act is very close to the BBC version which is usually performed.  The restored music is virtually all in what is now the second act.

The Curran-Hopkins production very cleverly uses modern stage design techniques and machinery to move quickly from the main deck to below decks or to the captain’s cabin.  Some of the concepts, including an especially striking penultimate scene, are breathtaking.

In fact, the Santa Fe production solved many of the riddles about how to make this intriguing opera a fast-paced, highly emotional experience.  One can propose that the Curran-Hopkins technical solutions be regarded as a point of departure for a major re-evaluation of this work.

Trawling the Source Material

Most of the standard opera repertory consists of operas adapted from “other media”.  More often than not (always excepting The Bard, of course), the work on which the opera is based is of little use to us in  really understanding the opera itself.

One can read, say, Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor” from cover to cover without gaining much insight into Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, and one would do well to stay away from Belasco’s politically very incorrect plays “Madame Butterfly” and “The Girl of the Golden West” entirely.

[Below: Captain Vere (William Burden) listens to the false testimony of Sergeant-at-Arms John Claggart (Peter Rose); edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

At first reading, Melville’s novella “Billy Budd” seems as episodic and rambling (digressive is probably a politer term) as the opera is taut and brisk.

Melville would surely have found much in the opera that had nothing to do with what he wrote – most obviously, Captain Vere’s tormented survival into old age – but much else also would have seemed foreign to him.

However, there are elements of the novella that give us some clues about the opera.  It gives us perspective on the mutiny on H.M.S. Nore, and how that event in time led to Admiralty reforms in the way ship’s crews were treated and disciplined (even if those reforms took decades to implement).

It answers some possible “viewer” questions about details – e.g., the ship that Budd was taken from  – The Rights of Man – was named by a shipowning fan of Thomas Paine. “Starry Vere” was a nickname (with an unimportant backstory) to differentiate a younger member of a nautical family from a famous relative.

It also gives considerable importance to explaining Vere’s rationale in trying and immediately executing a person who has killed a superior officer, regardless of the circumstance, rather than just waiting to turn Budd over to the admiralty courts.

And the novella’s dedication – to Jack Chase, Englishman, Captain of the Maintop of the US Frigate United States – demonstrated that Melville had a specific inspiration for his fictional title character.

Melville’s biography provides us with deep background for the Vere rationale for swift justice when a crime occurs at sea, in what is almost certainly a plot source. A cousin personally close to Melville was a naval officer who had participated in a drumhead court on the USS Somers leading to the execution of three sailors rumored to be plotting a mutiny (one the son of the U. S. Secretary of War).

Because the drumhead court and execution occurred on a homebound vessel (considered an extraordinary departure from normal practice) and no real evidence of an act of mutiny had been presented, it proved very controversial, but Melville’s family supported the cousin.  To add to the presumed significance of the USS Somers experience to the novella’s plot a memorable episode occurred – at the hanging on the yardarm, one of the condemned sailors cried out “God Bless the Flag!”.

Although there are alternative explanations about what Billy Budd – The Opera is about (and I am planning to post a commentary on these alternatives at a later date), I think the best “fit” is to consider it an allegory of the struggle or good against evil, as in a John Milton epic poem, into which is introduced a Miltonian ambiguity. And with Britten, as with Milton, that struggle has historical and political overtones, as will be discussed below.

Britten and his life partner Peter Pears had deeply held moral convictions against all war, and were expatriates from Great Britain at the beginning World War II.  But recognition of Hitler’s savagery overrode their pacifist principles and they wished to stand with their home country. They returned to a Britain skeptical of the pair and formally applied for and ultimately received conscientious objector status.

Although the West had been pretty unanimous during the War that Hitler was a dangerous enemy, a full portrait of his depravity had to await the incontrovertible proof of widespread genocide. After the war Britten toured one of Hitler’s concentration camps with Violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Within four years Britten authorized work on the “Billy Budd” libretto by his collaborators, the famous author E. M. Forster and BBC television’s Eric Crozier.

In the opera, even more so than in Melville’s novella, evil is represented by Claggart, a character as misanthropic as Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” or Hagen in Wagner’s “Goetterdaemmerung”.  Yet, any student of one of history’s great human rights campaigns – the anti-flogging movement in Britain – will understand that Claggarts existed throughout both the Royal Army and Royal Navy.

[Below: the Novice (Keith Jameson), to protect himself against any further floggings, agrees to be the operative of Claggart (Peter Rose), for anything he wants him to do; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

As the novella and opera informs us, through  the “press gangs” the British seized their own citizens and made them slaves of the Navy or Army. Only in that way were they able  to maintain the fighting force levels they felt they needed.

As a historical footnote, a “King’s Opinion” was issued in 1807, exactly ten years after the date in which the opera takes place, declaring that a flogging of 1500 lashes – one came to the attention of the authorities that was actually administered for a non-capital crime – should be deemed excessive, and that future floggings should be limited to no more than 1000 lashes. The opinion was widely ignored in both the Army and Navy, whose representatives maintained that military discipline could not be maintained without such repressive measures.

As a sergeant-at-arms expected to administer such a system, Claggart probably is no less evil than many of his peers.  Perhaps his speech about his depravity can be thought of as self-loathing that he has to be such a system’s operative.  But were he not there, another person cut from the same cloth would replace him.  Claggart is both personally evil and the symbol of a totalitarian military regime.

Good is represented by Billy Budd.  Systemically, he demonstrates that the reforms so resisted by the “powers that be” do work.  He loves his shipmates.  Once he has come aboard, the mood of the ship changes.  Captain Vere, himself a reformer at heart, understands that Budd, the agent of reform, represents the future that Vere desires.  Just as perceptibly, Claggart, the agent of the established system of terror, understands that Budd must be destroyed for the old system to prevail.

But Vere’s further perception is that one cannot reform a system that is itself smashed by disorderly mobs.  The “floating republic” declared by the mutineers of the HMS Nore would have crushed his desired reform movement as surely as the guillotine and Reign of Terror crushed reform in enemy France.  It was Vere’s perception that the swift and total destruction of the Nore mutineers was essential for any reform to take hold.

Perhaps this analysis goes further than most commentators on the opera have gone, but, if you think of the opera and of the Curran production in these historical and political terms, every piece of it falls into place.

As Conductor de Waart leads the sizable orchestra (quite large when compared to those of most Britten operas) in the first notes of the prologue, we are on the Indomitable main deck. William Burden, as the decrepit, elderly Captain Vere, walking with a cane, begins his first monologue. At its end he walks up the stairs to the captain’s level. The deck comes alive with able seamen swabbing the decks or hauling the rope lines, while foretopmen leap up and down the rope nets.

We meet Vere’s two top lieutenants, played by two veteran international opera stars Richard Stilwell (Mr Redburn) and Timothy Nolen (Mr Flint), who proved excellent character actors, both in extraordinary voice.  Three men have been seized from a mercantile vessel, and the Sergeant-at-Arms, John Claggart (Peter Rose) is called on deck to question them.

Claggart’s dark theme, played by tubas and other instruments consigned to the bass clef, is sharply contrasted with the vibrant themes associated with the impressed seamen, Billy Budd.  Curran has Budd  (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) instantly and warmly interact with his shipmates – enthusiastically shaking their hands and grasping their shoulders.

[Below: Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Billy Budd), foretopman, above Peter Rose (John Claggart); edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

When he is assigned to the foretop, Rhodes immediately climbs the rope ladder with impressive athleticism.  An appealing Billy Budd, Rhodes proved that he possessed the vocal power the part needs.  But he also proved to be both physically fit and the inhabitor of a fine physique, at one point shedding his shirt to confirm the point.

Peter Rose was uncommonly effective in Claggart’s monologue. In his sadistic quest for bright but weak seamen to form his group of spies and operatives, his encounters with the Novice, reeling from the pain of a mere 20 lashes with a cat o’nine-tails – a memorable performance by Keith Jameson – were especially noteworthy.

One of the Curran-Hopkins production features is the use of a device like an opening clamshell, by which the main deck is raised from a point mid-decks at an angle that opens to the audience, creating a space that becomes the lower decks. As it opens, cast and chorus members who have crouched in the narrow “below decks” space as the scene opens are there for Budd’s lively scenes with his shipmates.

[Below: Donald (Lucas Meachem) and Billy Budd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), center, lead their shipmates in dancing; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

Another fast-moving scene change creates the Captain’s cabin, merely by having some seamen pull a panel across the front deck while others bring in the Captain’s table and candlelabrum.  (At scene’s end, Burden carries the lighted candelabrum across the darkened deck to disappear into the officers’ decks.)

The first major restoration of previously excised music occurs in the second act, with a much longer time allotted to the preparations for engaging a French warship than in the standard version.  Curran makes great use of the more expansive time.  Very young boys are on deck to carry small powder kegs to the ship’s cannons.  The seamen are not the only inhabitants of the ship.  A coterie of red-jacketed Marines are there, their rifles at hand lest any sign of mutiny be in evidence.

Claggart, to rid the ship of Budd, who undercuts his authority, and thereby the entire system, concocts the scheme to frame Budd (as many think the hanged mutineers on the USS Somers were framed) with the charge of mutiny.  When Vere arranges for the accuser to confront the accused in his presence, Budd, so shocked he is unable to speak, strikes out impulsively and kills Claggart.

[Below: Billy Budd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) in chains on the night before his death by hanging; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

In the novella (and the opera as well) Vere has a private meeting with Budd after the verdict and sentence, whose content is, according to Melville, unknown. But we can be reasonably certain that Budd and Vere talked about good and evil.  Budd, in chains, sings one of the most illuminating of the restored cuts from the original version – he will hang, like Christ hung. Just before his death, Budd blesses Vere.

Another sizable restored cut is the extensive discussion by Vere and his lieutenants about the characteristics of the mist that foiled their attempt to sink the French warship.  The metaphor of the mist, of course, ultimately extends to Vere’s own mind.

Vere, the ship’s captain, when he believes forceful action is required, with self-confidence requires the guilty verdict and death sentence for Budd’s unintended killing of Claggart.  But, after Budd is hanged, in Britten’s transformation of the story, Vere is plagued through the rest of a long life with self-doubt about his refusal to save him.

The production team of de Waart, Curran, Hopkins and Fisher must be considered one of the most perceptive in the performance history of this opera.  The trio of lead roles – Rhodes, Burden and Rose – were uncommonly good and the supporting roles – Stilwell’s Redburn, Nolen’s Flint, Jameson’s Novice, as well as Thomas Hammons as Dansker, Lucas Meachem as Donald, Jeffrey Behrens as Squeak and John Duykers as Red Whiskers were invariably well-sung and impressively acted.

My comments conclude with what is perhaps the most extraordinary image of this production.  All the ship’s men have been required to be present for the execution. The first person on deck is the Novice, the person who benefited more than anyone from Billy killing Claggart.

There has been talk of mutiny. The marines are at ready to fire upon anyone starting trouble. But through Dansker, Billy has gotten the word out to key members of the crew to let his sacrifice take place.  He sings out his blessing to Vere, which is taken up by the crew.

Then Billy climbs up to the yardarm.  Sails are unfurled and through the mainsail, we see the image of Billy hanging. The crew mutters inarticulately. And with this image continuously visible through the sail, the elderly Captain Vere returns to the main deck to intone the final words of resolution ending this amazing production of Britten’s great opera.