Billy Budd stands tall in return to LA Opera

Even folks living in caves have probably heard about the Britten mania sweeping the world this year, and one of the best manifestations of the centennial celebration comes to LA Opera this weekend:  Billy Budd has arrived.

The opera premiered in 1951, one of Benjamin Britten’s most masterful works, and is a treatment of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, an unfinished novel which was published in 1924, decades after the author’s death.  The story, set in the French wars of the late 18th century, is fully awash in testosterone, the canvas that provides stark contrast to young Billy’s youthful idealism, and is blessed with plenty of the requisite seafaring jargon that so beautifully paints the foam on the waves:  terms like “foretopman”, “coxswain”, and “captain of the nizzen” are plentiful.  But never fear: the plot works, with or without keen comprehension of the ship’s workings.  You’ll also see that both story and score are rich with dichotomy:  the innocent becomes guilty, the bully becomes victim, the storied leader is riven by his own judgment and Billy’s forgiveness.

Although the composer’s very name can whip up nervousness in less adventurous listeners, this opera is full of strong melodies, with a score that is more experiential than tuneful, but fully accessible due to its creator’s exquisite craftsmanship.  The multi-layered textures of Britten’s orchestration makes this one of his most deftly shaded and engaging works.  It all begs the question:  does the audience really need to go home humming a tune?  The test of modern music is its overall effect, and even the traditionalist audience members we spoke to were genuinely enthusiastic.

This opera truly reveals the power of 20th-century compositional techniques: when more tools, more choices, and more colors are placed in the right hands, this broader vocabulary expands the communicative power of the music tremendously.

The iconic production returns to LAO after 14 years, and was originally created by Francesca Zemballo for its 1995 premiere at Covent Garden.  The production has returned in force, with the same set, blocking and major elements, but with almost a completely different cast:  only a few of the many chorus members were involved in the previous run, so the vast majority of the on-stage performers have been starting from scratch.  What buffs will remember, or recognize from pictures, is the iconic set, a huge slab of wooden ship’s deck, with a 30-foot double-crossed mast standing tall near center stage.

The front third of the stage rises and falls on pneumatic lifts at key moments in the action, allowing for additional action below decks and a dramatic, slow burn of a finale.  The total range of motion of the deck’s tip (seen raised, above) is about twelve feet, and it’s quite a ride.  The whole show is monumental in scale, with a big all-male cast that illustrates that strong and sometimes barbaric culture of shipdom.  Surely many operagoers will appreciate that much of those manly men are often shirtless, and it wasn’t for lack of a costume budget.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.  Photo courtesy of LA Opera, 2014The title role is played by baritone Liam Bonner, last seen at LAO as Sid in 2012’s Albert Herring.  Although both operas are from the same composer, the two roles couldn’t be more different:  Herring is much earlier, and is Britten’s only comedy, and Sid is bit of a rake.  Billy, however, is a true innocent, pressed into navy service against his will, yet jazzed about the possibilities, taking his shipmates at face value and stricken when faced with duplicity and ridicule.  Bonner was concerned about playing the young pup with enough naïveté, but without making him seem dim-witted:  “He’s not stupid, but he’s very honest, speaking his own truth.”  The baritone’s baby-faced good looks help, but he sings the role as an “old soul”, with much depth and heartbreaking pathos.

Richard Croft in LA Opera's 2014 'Billy Budd'The other performance that dropped jaws, however, is that of tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere.  Vere tells the story as an extended flashback, so we see him as an old man at the beginning and end of the show, as he contemplates whether his decision to condemn Billy was both correct and just.  From the moment Croft starts singing, he has our attention, with a warm and fluid sound that was evocative and consistent, top to bottom.


Greer Grimsley and Liam Bonner in LA Opera's 'Billy Budd'
Greer Grimsley and Liam Bonner in LA Opera’s ‘Billy Budd’

Greer Grimsley, in his LA Opera debut, showed a rich voice and dark characterization that was appropriately despicable.  James Creswell is a fine and endearing Dansker, the older sailor who takes Billy under his wing.

Jonathan Michie, Greg Fedderly and James Creswell in LA Opera's 2014 'Billy Budd'
Jonathan Michie (Donald) with Fedderly and Creswell

The cast is chock full of more smaller parts than we can address here — the list is long enough that you’ll want to keep it handy throughout.  Just as a start, watch out for these: LAO favorite Greg Fedderly (pictured, center) was in strong voice, and proved that he makes a convincing “ginger” in his role as Red Whiskers.  (Give it some thought, Greg — the world needs more of us!)  Keith Jameson‘s weasly and pathetic turn as the novice spoke much about the culture on the ship, and showed off strong acting chops.  Craig Colclough‘s Bosun was formidable and beautifully sung, and the various parts played by the children were particularly good in this production:  LAO has a very talented crop of boys for this run.

It must be said that there are considerable challenges to staging any opera of this scope:  with up to 85 performers onstage at a time, there were moments when sightlines (and perhaps too few rehearsals) are an issue, leaving the chorus and orchestra just slightly out of sync in a few moments.  This may sort itself out after a performance or two.  The score is a bear for singers, both rhythmically exacting and vocally demanding, to the point where even the principals were keeping a close eye on Conlon’s never-faltering baton.  But with a rich and gorgeous choral sound and one captivating solo performance after another, all is easily forgiven.

The orchestra is well-prepared and simply superb.  This centennial has birthed several passion projects for conductor James Conlon, including his involvement at a recent literary conference at UCLA. Conlon has fully established himself as a bona fide Britten expert, with a keen sense of how to communicate the full drama and emotion of the genius creator, and is proving himself one of the foremost interpreters of Britten’s work. Sounds good to us.

Get a fuller picture of the Conlon/Britten combo (would that be BenJam?):  @MrCKDH spent a busy Britten’s 100th birthday with Conlon, blogging about it on All is Yar.

Overall, this is one of the best productions LA Opera has brought to us in the last few years.  Performances continue through March 16.  Watch the trailer and  Get information and tickets here.


Editor’s note:  This preview is framed in a rather experimental composite format, drawing from multiple events and resources as well as Twitter content from the “Tweet Seats” on the night of the dress rehearsal.  (For more tweets, search for #LAOBillyBudd.)  We’ll be playing with this format as the season continues.  Please feel free to send us your thoughts, and let us know what is most helpful to you.

 Learn more

Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville

Although published after his death, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is now placed alongside his classic Moby-Dick as one of the great books of Western literature.  Read the original so you can compare it to the opera’s libretto, which was penned by E.M. Forster (best known for novels including Howard’s End and A Room With a View) and Eric Crozier.

Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by Neil Powell (2013)

This spellbinding centenary biography by Neil Powell looks at the music, the life, and the legacy of the greatest British composer of the twentieth century.

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