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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Opera Review: Injustice For All

The Metropolitan Opera (briefly) revives Billy Budd.
Ship rocked: Nathan Gunn (center) in the Met's
revival of Billy Budd. Photo by Ken Howard
 © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera unveiled the final revival of this season: John Dexter's classic 1978 production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. This revival also marked the return of James Morris to a signature role: the evil John Claggart.

Set aboard a British warship in 1797, Billy Budd (based on a novella by Herman Melville) is the story of a young sailor (Nathan Gunn) press-ganged into service aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable during the "French wars." The idealistic young sailor becomes popular among the crew but is targeted for destruction by Claggart, the ship's scheming master-at-arms.

Mr. Gunn embodied energy and fresh, doomed innocence in the title role. He stirred the audience with his entrance "Farewell, O Rights-O-Man," (a paean to his former ship) and brought raw energy to the crew's shenanigans below decks. He was at his most moving in the Act II scene in the ship's brig, where Billy confronts his coming execution and comes to peace with his fate.


The story of Billy Budd is told as a flashback by Captain Vere, played here by John Daszak in an impressive house debut. Mr. Daszak conveyed the character's lack of command ability, one of the things that causes Claggart to run rampant and Billy to be hanged. He sang the opening and closing scenes (with Vere as an old man) with the appropriate quaver in his voice.

James Morris has been a presence at the Met for four decades. The voice has worn off most of its velvet, but the singer (who sang the first Claggart at the Met in 1978) is still a commanding stage presence, whether lurking in the shadows or enforcing his peculiar brand of discipline upon the hapless crew. No singer knows this character better, and it was thrilling to see this veteran bass-baritone pick up the cat-o-nine-tails one last time.

For this revival, the company drafted a great crew of male singers to man the decks of the Indomitable. The cast includes tenor Alan Glassman, baritone Dwayne Croft (on loan from Das Rheingold) and bass Keith Miller. John Cheek, another longtime veteran of the opera house sang the small but crucial part of Dansker. The Met chorus and orchestra were at their highest standard, led with a crisp edge by conductor David Robertson. 

All the action of Budd is set aboard the Indomitable, presented on stage as a ship seen in cutaway. With its unfolding unit set and repeated transformations that reveal the lower and upper deck as needed, this is a somewhat more successful ancestor to the "Machine" the multi-million-dollar unit currently being used for the company's production of the Ring. Mr. Dexter's mechanism functioned perfectly  (and quietly, with the exception of the ship's cannon) on Friday night.

The complete absence of women and the harsh, military story relegate Billy Budd to the ghetto of "opera for connoisseurs." Given the great resources needed to stage this opera, the Met made the inexplicable decision to book only three performances of Billy Budd this season. One of them is scheduled for 9pm on a Saturday night. For an important opera about social justice, that might be the greatest injustice of all. 
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.