Soundings: All is not lost in 'Billy Budd'

If proof of the power of a fine director's hand exists, it was in the Washington National Opera's production of "Billy Budd."

On the surface, there are many elements of the Britten opus that don't necessarily add up to instant enjoyment. The musical lines are not overtly melodic. And sharply contrasting sounds don't ring readily or resonantly to the ear, despite Britten's intelligent and creative applications musically and symbolically. The richness of symphonic-type sound that is offered in this opera is harder to mine kind than most.

The score is sophisticated and smart, but its accessibility requires effort. For some, having an all male cast is less desirable than a mix, of male and female. And, the reasonably uncomplicated storyline, at least on the surface, finds it being played out onboard a ship, which limits the pleasure of operatic visuals found in the larger body of operatic works. Individual strokes for individual folks is what this amounts to. It may not be an opera you'd willingly snuggle up with at home listening to the radio or a recording. But, all isn't necessarily lost.

Complexities and preferences aside, what "Budd" does offer is a tale that has expansive psychological implications that take it beyond the claustrophobic core and, in this case, it offered the brilliant directorship of Francesca Zambello. " Most importantly, what this "Budd" had to offer was the brilliant directorship of Francesca Zambello. Zambello's vision, like the sea upon which the H.M.S. Indomitable sails, is boundless. She has taken the Herman Melville tale and transformed it into a riveting and compelling work that is staggering in dramatic impact and impression. Her keen sense of theater brought to light layers of emotional and psychological emotion found among the Indomitable's crew. From camaraderie, to jealousy, to hate, to love, the cast to a man brought theatrical credibility to "Budd., all the result of Zambello's focused vision.

Adding to the visual and dramatic appeal were Alison Chitty's set and costume design and Alan Burrett's dramatic lighting design, which combined to create lasting imagery. The stylized set featured a severely raked stage with multiple trap doors, rigging, and a symbolic cross-shaped mast that loomed over the main deck, somewhat a symbol of things to come--of Billy's ultimate betrayal and crucifixion. It again found dramatic significance at the opera's end when, in an amazingly dramatic moment, Billy's limp body hangs parallel to the cross, the symbolism ripe for interpretation. The intensity was palpable and awesome in implication. An amazing moment.

The set also featured a set of heavy-duty hydraulics lifts that periodically tilted the raked stage to heightened angles to reveal the crew quarters below deck. Its mechanical operation took on musical attributes and became part of the score and theater. Its design and use defined creativity.

Vocally, the cast was tip top, headed by Dwayne Croft as Billy, the good natured, happy fellow whose cheerful, innocent and forgiving nature made him the most popular man onboard. Billy's appeal, both physical and emotional, of course, was the undoing of Master-at-Arms Claggart, whose obsession over Billy led to the ultimate death of both. Vocally, Croft is on top of his game, his voice ringing soundly and solidly. He pulled together the best of his stage and singing skills in the closing "Starry Vere," which found the opera's most sustained sense of true lyricism and poignancy. Samuel Ramey again proved he is one of the opera world's best and most convincing actor-singers. His Claggart was wonderfully evil and controlling, an effective counterbalance to Croft's cheerfully-disposed Budd. Ramey's rich, dark bass is not as predictable as in the past, but he still is a master of selling a song and at this, in this "Budd," he excelled.

To Robin Leggate fell the considerable challenge of developing a Captain Vere whose life has been plagued with guilt over not doing what he could have and should have done to save Billy from hanging. Leggate crafted as fine a before and after characterization of the conflicted Vere as one could desire. (The opera starts and finishes through the eyes of an aged Vere looking back on the incidents that led to Billy's death.) He brought to his finely etched role a highly appealing tenor that, while not necessarily rounded in the upper registers, registered profound results. Other exceptional performances were provided by Steven Cole as Squeak, John McVeigh as the Novice, and Conal Coad, whose portrayal of Dansker was sensitive and touching. The men's chorus was splendid, bringing to the stage moments of swashbuckling excitement that were among their best ever.

Richard Hickox, a Britten specialist, handled the score with depth and feeling. He established nuance and brought desired intensity and drama to the action. The National Opera orchestra performed with brilliance. When you add up the singing, the staging and the craft that goes with set design, costuming, and lighting, and add to it the exacting and dramatic concept of a magnificent director, you've got an amazing experience, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. Such was the signifcance of this "Budd."

The Washington National Opera presents Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," directed by Francesca Zambello, with associate director Christian Rath, conducted by Richard Hickox, in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Sep.

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