Rare Met revival of Britten's shipboard opera
In this Wednesday, May 2, 2012 photo, Nathan Gunn performs the title roll during the final dress rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
NEW YORK (AP) — Absent from the Metropolitan Opera for 15 years, Benjamin Britten's great maritime tragedy "Billy Budd" has made a brief but welcome return in the season's closing days.
If the lead singers were a variable lot at Friday's premiere, the night was still a success because the real stars of the show — the conductor, the chorus and the set — all performed magnificently.
That set, designed by William Dudley for the 1978 John Dexter production, is a cutaway depiction against a black background of the H.M.S. Indomitable, a British gunship sailing toward battle with the French in 1797. When the action begins, we're on the main deck, but as scenes change, the ship seamlessly shifts and grows before our eyes, taking us down to the captain's cabin and the sailors' berths and even expanding to reveal seven levels at once.
In this Wednesday, May 2, 2012 photo, conductor David Robertson acknowledges the audience during the final dress rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
In adapting Herman Melville's novella, Britten and his librettists — E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier — invented a prologue and epilogue in which Captain Vere, now an old man, reflects on the events of the story. In brief, a good-natured young foretopman, Billy Budd, is falsely accused by the master-at-arms, John Claggart, of fomenting mutiny. Tongue-tied, Billy strikes Claggart dead, and Vere — despite his conviction that Billy is innocent — feels he has no choice but to see him hanged.
The role of the captain (originally written for Britten's life partner, Peter Pears) was taken in this revival by tenor John Daszak in his Met debut. He sang with a bright, pungent tone and notably crisp diction, though his sound occasionally turned strident on high notes. Dramatically, he was persuasive both as an old man tormented by guilt and as an embattled captain facing an impossible choice.