Certainly among the better of its 2008 season presentations, the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s nautical tragedy, Billy Budd, features two utterly memorable performances: American tenor William Burden in a gripping, heartbreaking singing-and-acting characterization of the tormented idealist, HMS Indomitable Captain “Starry” Vere — a mere man for all his authority, caught in a fateful clash between the Law of God and the Law of Man; and New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Billy Budd, the handsome and widely admired young sailor who, impressed from the merchant vessel, The Rights of Man, is subsequently hounded to his doom by an evil ship’s master-at-arms with the satanic name of Claggart.
The original story is a slightly obscure late work by Moby Dick author Herman Melville, although it has enjoyed a rich life in stage adaptations (especially at all-boys schools) and is frequently assigned in college literature courses. There students always learn that Billy is Christ, Claggart is the Devil, and Vere is Pontius Pilate. Billy meets his ultimate fate by hanging from a yardarm extending from the central mast of a ship – a mast flanked by two others, like the crosses on Calvary. Melville clearly intended this symbolism, so no blushing is required. Yes, The Rights of Man is also a revolutionary pamphlet by Thomas Paine, a champion of democracy and liberty.
At least one character, Squeak, one of Claggart’s minions, has a name taken from “simple allegory” in which the symbolism is blatantly obvious. The other names, however, verge on the same interpretive simplicity: Budd – the innocent, unformed flower; Starry Vere — a man steering toward some heavenly knowledge or spiritual redemption; and Claggart which, as suggested before, is a demon straight from Hell. And as played by English bass-baritone Peter Rose (and as the part is written by Britten, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier), Claggart emerges as pure Evil. Yet the original author and Britten/Forster/Crozier are certainly aware of plausible true-to-life psychological motivations – such as the idea that Claggart passionately resents the kind of personal perfection that Billy embodies and that he himself (Claggart) totally lacks. And that Claggart may have a homoerotic disturbance that makes him turn his sexual attraction into aggressive, destructive hatred.
Some have suggested that even Vere is “in love” with Billy, but, for better or for worse, these possible sexual undercurrents are not emphasized in the current SFO production. What sexual suggestion there is consists entirely of Mr. Rhodes’ athletic hyper-masculinity and the fact he takes his shirt off – a sight so astounding that it is apparently off-limits to photographers.
The opera, rich with symbolic signature tunes or leitmotivs that are exploited to the max, is written for a large orchestra, and the SFO musicians plunged into this score, superbly guided by conductor Edo de Waart. Those of us that know the work well – and love it despite its tendency to overstatement — are moved to tears by themes such as the distinctive “hanging from the yard” motif that recurs with devastating emotional power. Or the incredibly moving 34 chords that sound with dreadful solemnity.
The shipboard set (cannons and all) designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, was equipped with a ship’s main deck that lifted like a waffle iron from the floor to reveal action below decks. (How the singers avoided being crushed was a disturbing mystery.) I personally found most of the stage action so unfocused that I frequently did not know where to look, and lighting designer Rick Fisher seems to think the sun does not shine at sea. Much of the action was illuminated unrealistically at eye-strain levels.
The whole cast was marvelous, but time and space –etc., etc.: John Duykers as the desperate Red Whiskers; Richard Stilwell (Mr. Redburn), John Stephens (Mr. Radcliff), Timothy Nolen (Mr. Flint), as – and I am guessing on one of these – the trinity of officers who must struggle in their consciences to condemn Billy – all wonderful together (but which guy is which?); Thomas Hammons, deeply affecting as Dansker; and Matthew Hanscom, Chad Sloan, Kelly Markgraf, Lucas Meachem, Matthew Tuell, Keith Jameson, Jeffrey Behrens (Squeak), Andrew Darling, Stephen Hartley, and Peter Ahrens. One easily forgets that this basically three-character drama has a huge cast!
Billy Budd – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Vere – William Burden
Claggart – Peter Rose
Mr. Redburn – Richard Stilwell
Mr. Flint – Timothy Nolen
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – John Stephens
Dansker – Thomas Hammons
Novice – Keith Jameson
Donald – Lucas Meachem
Maintop – Matthew Tuell
Red Whiskers – John Duykers
Conductor – Edo de Waart
Director – Paul Curran
Scenic Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Costume Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher