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Billy Budd

Los Angeles Opera

In Review Los Angeles Billy Budd hdl 514
Searching revival: Zambello's Billy Budd at Los Angeles Opera
© Robert Millard 2014

It is now almost twenty years since Francesca Zambello's groundbreaking production of Billy Budd was first seen at Covent Garden and almost fourteen since its premiere in Los Angeles. Fears that it might seem somewhat weathered on its return to the L.A. stage were dispelled, first by the reports that Zambello herself had attended some rehearsals, then by the revival director, Julia Pevzner, who presented Britten's opera in a meticulous, elegant performance that explored with cool power the deadly class-structure that precipitates the personal tragedy. Alan Burrett's expressionistic lighting emphasized sharp contrasts and decisive turning points in the action, and Alison Chitty's notable, minimal set — a bare raked space dominated by a cruciform yardarm — highlighted the parable-like nature of the action.

The setting made us think of the ship as a tiny world of its own, adrift in a boundless sea, which brought to the fore the morality-play aspect of the work, in which the eternal nature of the conflict between good and evil is paramount. Captain Vere became the dominant figure in the action. Vere's knowledge of this conflict, and of Billy's essential innocence, made his failure to support him that much more heinous. Richard Croft's multi-layered reading of the Captain skillfully blended the assumptions of class privilege with both an awareness of his weakness as a leader and his aspirations toward a more humane society. His abandonment of Billy was unquestionably a betrayal — of the sailor and of himself. 

There were no heroes in this military environment, nor were there total villains. The strength of Greer Grimsley's rock-solidly sung Claggart — a performance that marked his role debut as well as his company debut — was that he remained oddly likeable while he embodied evil as a moral and social force; even when his Claggart accused Billy, one could understand the sailor's trust in him. In contrast, Liam Bonner's Billy was refreshingly unproblematic. Bonner took a long time to establish himself — the role is surprisingly small early on — but his clearly etched baritone, with its wonderfully ringing upper range, made Billy's final solo the climax of the action, one that drenched the character in glory.

L.A. Opera assembled a supporting cast of rare quality. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Mr. Redburn was an uncertain though potentially warm man, a public schoolboy, eager to please, out of his depth in naval command; Daniel Sumegi's towering Mr. Flint was disturbed, but not unduly so, at the unpleasantness of his duties; and Patrick Blackwell, as Lieutenant Radcliffe, unhappily went along with his seniors. As for the crew, it was populated by several singers, some of them fine comic performers, well known on local stages — James Creswell (Dansker), Craig Colclough (Bosun), Greg Fedderly (Red Whiskers), Keith Jameson (Novice), Jonathan Michie (Donald) and Matthew O'Neill (Squeak) — which suggests that Southern California is developing into a potential powerhouse for opera performance.

But perhaps the main reason this production seemed so fresh was James Conlon. This was the first time he had conducted Billy Budd,and his take on the score was unexpectedly romantic. Above all, it was the music of the sea, of that realm in which Billy imaginatively lives and to which he returns, that flowed constantly through the orchestra. Climaxes were, as is customary with Conlon, precisely and sharply shaped — the Shostakovich-style chord in Vere's final monologue was overwhelming — but it was the dangerous waves and the never-ending allure of the sea that eventually prevailed. Grant Gershon's chorus was magnificent. This was a searching revival of one of modern opera's most splendid scores. spacer


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