[Met Performance] CID:255010

Metropolitan Opera Premiere, New Production

Billy Budd
Metropolitan Opera House, Tue, September 19, 1978

Debut : Raymond Leppard, John Davies, Andrew Smith, Jeremy Pearce, William Dudley

Billy Budd (1)
Benjamin Britten | Eric Crozier/E. M. Forster
Billy Budd
Richard Stilwell

Captain Vere
Peter Pears

James Morris

Mr. Redburn
Peter Glossop

Mr. Flint
David Ward

Mr. Ratcliffe
John Cheek

Robert Goodloe

Andrea Velis

Andrew Foldi

James Atherton

Novice's Friend
John Davies [Debut]

Red Whiskers
Robert Nagy

Arthur Jones
Nico Castel

Morley Meredith

First Mate
Andrew Smith [Debut]

Second Mate
Gene Boucher

John Carpenter

Hal Roberts

Gunner's Mate
Richard Firmin

Cabin Boy
Scott Rigby

Jeremy Pearce [Debut]

Mark Freiman

Godehard Rau

Michael Carter

Raymond Leppard [Debut]

John Dexter

William Dudley [Debut]

Lighting Designer
Gil Wechsler

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Billy Budd received eight performances this season.
Photograph of Richard Stilwell as the title role in Billy Budd by Winnie Klotz/Metropolitan Opera.

Review 1:

Review of David Hamilton in the October 21, 1978 issue of the Nation

The libretto that E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier made for Benjamin Britten from Herman Melville's "Billy Budd, Sailor" is sufficiently enigmatic to send one back to the original work - not for invidious comparison but for clarification. As with other Britten operas, notably "The Turn of the Screw," such background research does not necessarily clarify; it does, however, make one aware of what has been altered, added, or omitted. Forster and Crozier eschewed numerous subtleties of motivation and philosophical justification set forth by Melville's anonymous narrator; even more significantly, considering the yards and yards of dialogue that they were forced to invent in filling out episodes built on mere hints in the story, they chose to omit important dialogue present in the original.

One of these passages is Captain Vere's lengthy and precise explanation, before the drumhead court, of why the morally innocent, though technically guilty, Billy should be put to death for his involuntary killing of Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. In the opera, Vere remains silent at this point, obscuring his motivations, rendering him more passive - a problem further aggravated by the omission, in Britten's 1961 revision of his 1951 opera, of a scene that evidently established quite firmly Vere's respected position in the eyes of the crew. In the version now performed, he turns up first (barring his appearance as an old man in the Prologue) as a bookish bachelor taking wine with his officers, hardly the sort of figure to incite strong loyalties from ordinary seamen.

Such reflections - and others might be cited - express a certain lack of clarity (in my mind, at least) with respect to the import of Britten's Billy Budd: but after seeing the new Metropolitan Opera production (the work's first staging in New York), I have no doubt about its impact - as I did have when I first confronted the opera in recorded form a decade ago. The many and obvious motivic connections and their coming together at structural cruxes had seemed, in that purely auditory context, almost too pat, and the extensive "action music" didn't quite hold the attention on its own. All of this turns out to be perfectly gauged in terms of the stage: the requirements of a drama involving a large cast and consequent close attention thereto on the part of the observer are carefully allowed for; the relative weights of theatrical and musical complexity are sagely and fluently balanced. The framing Prologue and Epilogue (inventions of the librettists, showing Vere in old age) allow the introduction in a simple dramatic context of the musical conflicts that will reverberate throughout the busy central action.

And though some of these conflicts seem almost mechanically worked out in the initial episodes of maritime life, they come together most affectingly in the opera's final scenes: Britten's setting of parts of the ballad that Melville placed at his novella's conclusion: the submissive transformation of the crew's inarticulate murmur of protest into their familiar sea chanty; the metamorphosis of Billy's farewell to earth into Vere's final tranquil acceptance of the long-past events.

It is often suggested that music can articulate what words cannot. I am not convinced that in "Billy Budd" Britten's music does precisely that; it may rather represent an evasion - carried out arm in arm with the libretto - of both the tale's moral issues and its homoerotic undertones, waffling on these while intensifying our instinctive sympathetic responses to the characters of Billy and Vere. Even as such, however, the opera remains the work of a major musical and theatrical inventor; the orchestration alone, coping variously and ingeniously with the challenge of an all-male vocal layout, testifies to Britten's absolute craftsmanship.

John Dexter's production for the Met is an admirable piece of theatre. William Dudley has devised an extraordinary multilevel ship, its decks rising and sinking before our eyes. That the black background gives us nothing in the way of maritime atmosphere is probably just, for Melville's ship is more a metaphor for the world of men than a straightforward nautical ambiance. There is nothing in the score about waves or weather, save the mist that foils the pursuit of a French ship - and that too turns out to be a metaphor for Vere's confusion in the face of Claggart's accusations of Billy. More troublesome was the absence of rigging, of any sense of the space "aloft" in yards and masts that was counted on by authors and composer.

Against this minor flaw must be set the fluidity of the set, the vitality of the direction, and the considerable skills, both vocal and dramatic, of the large cast. Richard Stilwell meets the essential visual requirements of Melville's "Handsome Sailor" and sings handsomely as well, for which a slight excess of refinement may easily be forgiven. More than a quarter century after the opera's first performance, Peter Pears can still re-create Captain Vere with convincing effect Though the effort of controlling the now quaversome tone sometimes impeded his once impeccable clarity of diction, his performance was incomparably moving, and must have formed a strong focus for the rest of the cast. Among the others, let me reluctantly single out James Morris (Claggart), Peter Glossop (Mr. Redburn), James Atherton (the Novice) and Andrew Foldi (the Dansker) reluctantly. because the casting was remarkably consistent throughout. Raymond Leppard conducted, vigorously if not with

as much sense of the work's longer lines as I would have liked.

(By the time this appears in print, the opera's initial run will be over, but three further performances are scheduled in late March, including a broadcast on March 31. Meanwhile, a San Francisco production will go out on National Public Radio stations around November 1; and, of course, the excellent London recording, conducted by the composer, is readily available.)

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