Boldly conceived, masterfully directed and taut with unbearable musical and theatrical tension, the Washington National Opera’s current production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” is beyond brilliant.
Boasting an unusual all-male cast led by sure-footed veterans Dwayne Croft, Samuel Ramey and Robin Leggate, the production soars dramatically under the direction of Francesca Zambello and musically under the baton of Richard Hickox.
Initially presented as a four-act opera in 1951, Mr. Britten’s “Billy Budd” is based on Herman Melville’s short novel, with a libretto penned by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. Tightened into two-acts for a 1961 BBC production, the revised opera was performed for the first time in public at Covent Garden in 1964. It has become the preferred version and is the one being presented here this month. Its frequently noted homosexual undercurrent, while present, is not the focal point of this production.
“Billy Budd” is a classic morality tale where good squares off against evil. The sadistic master-at-arms, Claggart, is insanely jealous of Billy’s popularity with the crew. The sunny, innocent Billy, on the other hand, represents an absolute, if flawed, good. He is hampered by a stammer that shows up when he’s under duress, rendering him likely to lash out from frustration. This he eventually does under extreme provocation, leading to the predictable final tragedy.
The conflicted referee, Captain Vere (a name derived from “veritas,” the Latin word for “truth”) becomes the central intelligence in Mr. Britten’s opera. The work unfolds as his remorseful, haunted flashback.
Though occasionally prosaic, the taut, modernist, yet tonal opera has all the right stuff: strong character motifs, symbolic themes and creative instrumentation. The choral writing is noteworthy, particularly in the depressing opening chorus (“Heave, O heave away, heaven”) and the raucous Act II battle hymn.
Baritone Dwayne Croft, who has sung Billy with the Met, has clearly made this one of his signature characters. He interprets the young sailor as a primitive innocent, singing the role with clarion sweetness supported by considerable power and assurance. Mr. Croft’s quietly sensational performance defines the role of Billy for our time.
As Claggart, renowned bass-baritone Samuel Ramey makes a triumphant return to Washington, adding yet another famous villain to his long-list of operatic evildoers. Claggart is a relatively small role. But Mr. Ramey buttresses it vocally with such a cold, snarling menace that his presence dominates the crew even when he is not present on Alison Chitty’s ghostly shipboard set.
Tenor Robin Leggate, in the role of Vere, eerily calls to mind the voice of Peter Pears, Mr. Britten’s life-companion and the reedy tenor who gave life to many of the composer’s vocal works (including this one). With crisp diction and precise phrasing, Mr. Leggate infuses this role with a quiet authority.
The large ensemble is conducted with pinpoint control and professionalism by British maestro Richard Hickox. Unlike last week’s “Andrea Chenier,” everything was ready for prime time on opening night — balance, precision and a real respect by the conductor for the vocal qualities of the singers, the chorus, and the space.
Mr. Hickox’s vision for this work — which he recently recorded with the London Symphony —”contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman might say. His “Billy Budd” could easily be the most memorable operatic production of the season.
WHAT: The Washington National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: Tonight and Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Monday at 7 p.m., and Oct. 3 at 2 p.m.
TICKETS: $45 to $290
INFORMATION: 202/295-2400, or visit www.dc-opera.org.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS