BILLY BUDD REVIEW (aka This Budd’s for You)

“Billy Budd” was the appropriate finale for the Los Angeles Opera’s 14th season, a reminder that of all repertories sampled by departing founder and general director Peter Hemmings during his tenure, the operas of Benjamin Britten have consistently earned highest acclaim. This was the fourth work to be heard; “Peter Grimes,” scheduled for next October, will extend the list. “Billy Budd” runs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through June 17
History abounds. The Billy is Rodney Gilfry, who has come far since he sang the Herald in the company’s inaugural “Otello” in October, ’86; much of his rise has been nurtured by Hemmings’ benevolent regard for young artists. Roderick Brydon is on the podium, as he has been for nearly all the company’s Britten ventures. (Robert Duerr led the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” the first time around; Brydon, the revival.) The production,  from London’s Royal Opera, is directed by Francesca Zambello, also now an international celebrity, whose off-the-wall “Les Troyens” for Hemmings in ’91 was one of the company’s most illustrious fiascos. And Richard Stilwell, the Billy in the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere in ’78, is on hand in Los Angeles, older and wiser, as First Lieutenant Redburn.
All told, L.A.’s “Billy Budd” constitutes a distinguished sendoff, both for Hemmings (who returns to the England he never really abandoned at least in spirit) and for the company’s  1999/2000 season, a bumpy journey for the most part. Alison Chitty’s stage designs nearly steal the show; the several decks of Herman Melville’s “HMS Indomitable” rise and fall, opening vistas of endless starry skies at one point, and crowding down onto the climactic scene of murder and recrimination as if to trap its principals – the saintly Billy, the insanely lovelorn Master-at-Arms  Claggart and the benevolent but catatonic Captain Vere — in a psychological prison of their own making.
The stage designs capture as well the multileveled symbolism of Melville’s parable, over which scholars will forever haggle. E.M. Forster’s libretto, while taming some of Melville’s visionary prose, neatly touches up its unspoken homoerotic undercurrents. (The similarity to Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” which Britten also successfully set as his final opera, is made inescapable in Forster’s prose setting.) Similarly, Zambello’s propensity for freeze-framing Rodney Gilfry’s Billy in a succession of tableaux worthy of any Sunday-school calendar, turned celestial in Alan Burrett’s ecstatic lighting, gaudily highlights another of the fable’s disturbing, captivating undercurrents.
Gilfry now owns the role of Billy worldwide: brilliantly in command of the clear, poignant eloquence for the final haunting ballad, as well as the physical ease in climbing foretops and ladders. As his antagonist and ultimate victim, Jeffrey Wells creates a hulking, horrific Claggart; Robert Tear’s Captain is exactly right in its tone of incertitude blended into nobility. The great “Billy Budd” performances – the John Dexter staging at the Met, for one – triumph ultimately in their creation of a taut, rough-edged, howling ensemble out of a huge all-male cast whose dark tone colors are furthered by the pounding drums and brass of the orchestra. Peter Hemmings’ song of farewell belongs in this company.

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