A couple weeks ago I went to BAM to see Benjamin Britten’s opera *Billy Budd*. I had seen it in Chicago about 15 years ago, and I liked it - - I was a little ambivalent about going to see it this time, but figured since the production was coming from Glyndebourne, one of the greatest opera companies in the UK, I could make the effort to see it. I’m so glad I did, it was fantastic.
I experienced some classic New York audience moments before the curtain went up. I waited a long time for the elevator going up to the balcony, and it pretty was crowded when we all got in. I was standing next to a woman in her 70s who was holding a half cup of hot coffee and shaking visibly. I don’t know whether she had elder issues or a low tolerance for caffeine, but I eyed her shaking cup of coffee with worry. She said, “I’m glad I didn’t get a full cup!” I smiled at her wanly.
The elevator got off on our floor and there were over a hundred people in line, waiting to be seated. The Brooklyn hipster girls ahead of me in line said, “This is our punishment for showing up on time.” I finally got to my usher - - she was helping a couple and there was another guy ahead of me. The couple went to their seats and a third guy came out of nowhere and handed her his ticket. I turned to the guy ahead of me and he rolled his eyes and chuckled. I said, “I guess you weren’t aware that you had on your invisibility cloak.” He said, “Either that, or he’s the only person in the world!”
I got to my seat, and wouldn’t you know there was a woman next to me with her fur coat on my seat. Does that sense of entitlement come from owning a fur coat? I was standing there, writing some notes (about her), and who popped over to say hello but the marvelous Elliot Levine, a singer and composer friend of mine. I hadn’t seen him in a while, we had a lovely chat before the show and during intermission.
The opera was premiered at Covent Garden in 1951, it’s an adaptation of a Melville short novel. It takes place on the HMS Indomitable in 1797. It’s the only opera anywhere near the standard repertoire that has an all-male cast. You’d think that it would get a little confusing to have nothing but men singing for three hours, but Britten wrote it in a way where every character has his own voice, you never lose track of who the characters are.
The Met production is very grand, it uses the stage elevator to go above deck and under deck, it’s very impressive. This production was done on a unit set, which emphasized the claustrophobia of being on a ship for months at a time. The set pushed back at the end of the opera, when the captain has his epilogue, that was an exciting touch.
The star of the show was the opera itself. The harmonies, the harmonic shifts, the vocal writing, the drama, the orchestration, and immensity of it all. It was a thrill to be in the presence of such brilliance. I’ll give you two examples. The opera opens with a prologue by the captain as an old man, looking back on the story of Billy Budd. The music undulates in a way that suggests both the ocean and the rocking waves of his memory. We move to the ship, and the music becomes very active, with all the work going on. This goes on for a while - - there’s plenty of variety in the music, but it’s always rather active. Then the villain comes onstage, and everything comes to a dead stop. It was shocking, and perfectly expressed the power of his character.
The other example I’ll give you, I’m not sure if it was in the first act or the second act, but there’s a moment where you go from a terse scene with a few people to a scene with all the sailors lounging on deck, singing and happy. The music has a wide open, warm, sunny quality that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the opera, and the men onstage sang it with such brio. It literally took my breath away.
Mark Padmore played Captain Vere, he sang with incisive diction and depth of character. Jacques Imbrailo played Billy Budd, and I wasn’t so wowed by him. He sang well, maybe a little too tremulous now and then for my taste. The bigger issue is he didn’t have the charisma to pull off the character. Billy is supposed to be the sweetheart of the ship, and it would be a good start to be handsome (the dreamy American baritone Theodor Uppman created the role, and the hunky Nathan Gunn has done it more recently), but Imbrailo could have counteracted his unconventional good looks with some hearty charm. We all could! The stand-out performance was by bass Brindley Sherratt. He has a big, dark, gorgeous voice, and played his role with stillness and absolute black evil. He was chilling. But since the opera was the star of the show, I have to mention conductor Mark Elder and the London Symphony Orchestra. They played the score not like a modern curiosity, but like the masterpiece it is.