Friday, September 13, 2019

Billy Budd in San Francisco

Conductor: Lawrence Renes
Production: Michael Grandage *

Captain Vere, tenor: William Burden
Billy Budd, baritone: John Chest *
John Claggart, bass: Christian Van Horn
Mr. Redburn, baritone: Philip Horst
Mr. Flint, bass-baritone: Wayne Tigges
Mr. Ratcliffe, baritone: Christian Pursell
Red Whiskers, tenor: Robert Brubaker
Novice, tenor: Brenton Ryan
Maintop, tenor: Christopher Colmenero *
Squeak, tenor: Matthew O'Neill
Dansker, bass: Philip Skinner

There are now two operas based on the novels of Hermann Melville:  Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten and Moby Dick by Jake Heggie.  The San Francisco Opera last night performed the 1960 condensed version of Billy Budd.

In the program notes a date is assigned to the plot of this opera:  1797, within the decade after the French revolution.  These are members of the British navy aboard the HMS Indomitable. The officers are from more traditional sources, but it is their habit to stop merchant ships and take men from their crews to conscript them into the lower classes of the navy.   This is why they are so concerned about mutiny.  Billy Budd is conscripted in this way.  They ask him how old he is and he says he doesn't know.

Claggart becomes emotionally concerned with Billy, saying "Beauty, handsomeness, goodness."  He takes this personally and accuses Billy to the Captain of mutiny.  Billy becomes tongue tied and cannot defend himself, hitting Claggart instead.  Claggart dies, and Billy is hanged and thrown into the ocean.

The staging was marvelous.  The set is very functional for all the scenes.  I had only one trouble with it.  In operas with large casts, such as this one, the director must find a way to make the main characters stand out from the others.  The Captain is easy to find on the stage because he stands above the others.  Claggart is the very physically distinctive Christian Van Horn with his long face.  But Billy quickly disappears into the crowd in many scenes.  He could have more brilliantly blond hair, maybe.  Just saying.

There is a lot going on in this very busy opera.  I was reminded that I once had a rule:  never go to an opera with 3 baritones.  This would definitely be in that category. Britten's orchestration is brilliant and colorful, but he doesn't compose the voices so much as orchestrate them.  The chorus is very rumbly. The voices each seem to stay in a relatively small range, not at all what an opera singer generally desires.  I want vocal beauty and not merely visual beauty.  Extending the range would also help to create the impression of melody.

I am the only one complaining about this.  I felt that it was a significant production, but I wanted more.  Different singers might produce a different effect.

I came down fairly heavy on Britten.  Additional thought has led me to conclude that fault may lie more with the specific performance.  Training might eliminate the rumbly sound.  I should also mention that I abandoned my 3 baritones rule after hearing a really good performance of Simon Boccanegra.


Bruce said...

tonight's performance--17 Sept 2019--proved once again (as if it were necessary) how really great the SFO orchestra really is

Bruce said...

on further consideration, DrB, ...about your remark that there are two operas, now, on texts from Melville....I wonder if an opera couldn't be made of (incidents from) The Confidence Man? and by whom? thoughts? Glass? Adams? (maybe time for him to set someone else's texts....)

Dr.B said...

Both Glass and Adams are great, but I'm tired of Sellars as a librettist.

Bruce said...

tired of Sellars? any reasonable person would be.
further to BB, and SFO's performance: the string of triads played in the orchestra while we wait out the night in Act's deep and heartbreaking