‘Billy Budd’ Swells SF Opera Sails In Billowing Triumph

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A scene from the San Francisco Opera production of Britten’s ‘Billy Budd.’
(Photos by Cory Weaver)
 By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – “This is our moment, The moment we’ve been waiting for…”

So sing the men of the HMS Indomitable (or Bellipotent in Melville’s novella) as they get ready for battle against a French ship, which escapes in the mist.

“This is our moment,” sang Ian Robertson’s magnificent San Francisco Opera Chorus on Sept. 7 at the opening of Michael Grandage’s 2010 Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Billy Budd – and nothing escaped them as they shook the rafters.

Christian Van Horn as John Claggart and William Burden as Captain Vere in ‘Billy Budd.’

Only in Bayreuth have I heard such solid, hitting-your-chest, overwhelming choral sound, and the 3,200-seat War Memorial has nothing of the 1,925-seat wood-paneled Festspielhaus’ acoustics, so this was a special physical-musical thrill.

Adding to the collective triumph of the evening, the SFO Orchestra, under Lawrence Renes’ baton, played Britten’s immense score as if possessed. Orchestral interludes were phenomenal, especially the one after the trial scene, bringing the deep sorrow of Parsifal to mind. The whole orchestra should be listed here, but Mingjia Liu’s oboe obbligato and David Henderson’s saxophone stood out even among them.

Based on the unfinished novella by Herman Melville, unpublished until 1924, long after his death in 1891, and set to a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Billy Budd returned to the War Memorial repertoire after a 15-year absence – the period also marking the last time SFO produced a Britten opera. (One of former general director David Gockley’s major regrets in the aftermath of the Great Recession budget crisis was canceling his treasured plans for Peter Grimes; the San Francisco Symphony came to the rescue in 2014 with a wonderful concert performance.)

The Opera’s Billy Budd performances coincide with the Melville bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the posthumous discovery of the manuscript. The cast is uniformly strong, led by brilliant vocal performances and convincing stage presence from the three principals: John Chest in the title role, William Burden as Captain Vere, and Christian Van Horn as John Claggart.

John Chest portrays Billy Budd in the San Francisco Opera production.

Chest, a properly youthful 34, maintained the role’s challenging vocal and dramatic presence; his return to the company ten years after his Merola Program participation here was a memorable occasion.

In the role of Captain Vere – the true hero-antihero of Billy Budd – Burden impressed with effortless singing and distinctive diction.

As Claggart, Van Horn’s big voice and personality to match gave the production evil so complete you couldn’t help but admire it.

Without a weak link in comprimario roles, the cast includes several current and recent Adler Fellows. Of special note were Philip Skinner (Dansker), Edward Nelson (Bosun), Philip Horst (Mr. Redburn), Christian Pursell (Mr. Ratcliffe), Christopher Colmenero (Maintop), and Sidney Outlaw (First Mate).

Christopher Oram’s sensational stage design and Paule Constable’s exceptional lighting design are well served by revival stage director Ian Rutherford and revival lighting designer David Manion. Although diction is fine overall, supertitles backing up the text are welcome.

Of the acoustically splendid “ribcage” set from Glyndebourne, Oram said: “The shape is evocative of nautical architecture (curves, warm wood, tiers, galleries). Grandage wanted to make the audience feel like they are ‘on the vessel.’ When Vere stands on the quarter deck commanding his ship, he commands the entire auditorium.”

At the same time, the set conveys the feeling of the claustrophobia and darkness below decks, “the body of the ship to be like the belly of a whale,” as Oram put it.

While music and performance are straightforward and magnificent, there is much uncertainty and debate in the audience and among critics about both Melville and Britten because of the work’s ambiguity, its moral and intellectual dilemmas, and its theatrical-psychological validity.

Billy Budd (John Chest) awaits his hanging in the San Francisco Opera production of Britten’s searing work.

As Larry Rothe’s essay in the SF Opera program book describes the troubled and troubling finale:

“A forced optimism [Budd’s forgiveness with “Starry Vere, God bless you!”], at extreme odds with Melville, seems to inhabit the epilogue. Yet the chords of the interview sequence rising through this scene suggest a recurrent Melville theme: salvation through human empathy, the empathy those chords represent.

“At last, after a surge of affirmation, the orchestra falls silent, the captain’s words end in a mutter, and the opera concludes, not quite sure of what has transpired in these final moments.”

Billy Budd continues at San Francisco Opera through Sept. 22. For information and tickets, go here.

Janos Gereben, whose career ranged from the NY Herald-Tribune to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, joined San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV.org) when it was founded by Robert and Mary Commanday in 1998. He also writes about music and art for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.