`Billy Budd' is a voyage not to be missed

Staging helps guide journey of good, evil


September 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Good or evil. Some people can divide everyone and everything into those two categories, recognizing no gray shades in between, but most of us, I suspect, find it less simple.

We're more likely to empathize with Captain Vere, commander of the British battleship Indomitable, who, in the arresting opening minutes of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, recalls the good and evil he has seen. "And the good has never been perfect," he sings. "There is always ... some defect in it, some imperfection in the divine image ... some stammer in the divine speech."

It is, of course, specifically a stammer that is revealed as the fatal flaw in an able seaman called Billy Budd, whose "beauty, handsomeness, goodness" affects all those aboard the fateful ship. But more than enough flaws fill that vessel, which sails into a mist and never really comes out, certainly not with all matters clarified, all emotions salved.

Washington National Opera's must-see production of Billy Budd underscores the conflict between innocence and guile that drives this remarkable work. It would be hard to imagine a more involving realization of what Britten and his librettists, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, were after when they decided to transform Herman Melville's novella into what became a landmark of 20th-century opera.

The production, first seen in London in 1995, is the inspiration of director Francesca Zambello and set/costume designer Alison Chitty. The action plays out on an edgy, abstract space that serves as an upper deck, dominated by a huge mast that, in one particularly blazing image, becomes a kind of crucifix.

In a splendid bit of stagecraft, a hydraulic lift enables the main platform to rise periodically, revealing sailors crammed into their quarters below - reiterating the separate worlds inhabited by the men trapped in a claustrophobic object floating on "the infinite sea." Alan Burrett's lighting enhances such insights immeasurably.

Long before being confronted with the onstage hanging of the unsuspecting hero - a scene usually depicted more discreetly - the audience is thrust into the heart of this troubled journey. It's a journey infused with Christian symbolism and the touchy issue of sexuality (attractions and animosities between the leading characters within this all-male society imply many a complicated, inner impulse).

The staging's immediacy was almost entirely matched with musical impact Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

Robin Leggate recovered quickly from an early memory lapse to deliver a riveting portrayal of the guilt-haunted Vere. The tenor's liquid tone and unfailingly eloquent phrasing hit home, nowhere more movingly than in his plea, "Oh, for the light of clear Heaven, to separate evil from good."

As Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms who cannot accept the decency of Billy (and, perhaps, an awakening desire for him), Samuel Ramey summoned considerable vocal richness as he limned the character's grotesque motivations.

Obviously, the role of Billy requires, first of all, an unusual physical presence, someone whose looks and every gesture explain how so much in the established order of things on the Indomitable could suddenly, irrevocably change. The vocal requirements are no less critical. Dwayne Croft came up a little short in both areas. His singing was certainly thoughtful and, in his final aria, very sensitive, but his tone had limited color. And his acting, while fluent, lacked the extra spark, the enveloping aura that's so essential.

The supporting cast proved uniformly effective, with especially memorable work from John Hancock as a sympathetic Mr. Redburn; John McVeigh as the doubly tortured Novice; Steven Cole as a vicious Squeak, who passes on the abuse he suffers from Claggart; and Conal Coad as wise old Dansker.

The chorus, prepared by Steven Gatham, superbly fulfilled its vocal demands, producing a downright spine-tingling sound in the call-to-battle music, and executed its scurrying, cowering and threatening actions with admirable naturalness.

Richard Hickox, one of today's leading Britten specialists, conducted incisively, making sure that each instrumental color registered and drawing from the orchestra disciplined, detailed and dynamic playing.

Billy Budd

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 tonight, 7 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30, 2 p.m. Oct. 3.

Tickets: $45 to $290

Call: 800-876-7372

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