Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Pecs and the Man

August 07, 2008

Lucas Meachem and Teddy Tahu Rhodes show off their jazz hands
Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

I must admit I found Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Britten’s Billy Budd a disappointment. I wanted to like it. I really, really did. But sometimes things don't work out the way you'd expect. The biggest negative of the evening on paper was the new production being helmed by Paul Curran, who is responsible for some of the most pedestrian and boring productions around including last year’s atrocious La Bohème here in Santa Fe. But I must admit that the production wasn’t as bad as I expected. It had a fair amount of movement with some clever scene changes and a very effective final scene where the hanging of Budd was handled with a stark and moving grace, the body back lit and shadowed against a large sail that filled the stage. But it was far from perfect. The whole show was a bit precious and at times reminded me of a gay musical-theater version of Master and Commander. But isn’t that what Billy Budd is more or less to begin with anyway? The stage was often cluttered and crammed with too many people in too little space creating unfocused and fussy visuals. The choreography was laughable at times most unfortunately when Budd kills Claggart with what appears to be a poorly thrown punch which elicited a few guffaws from tonight’s audience. Of course it wasn't a complete surprise after the veritable floor show that had preceded it as pictured above.

The cast was good, but only Peter Rose’s Claggart was completely satisfying. His Act I aria concerning his resolve to destroy beauty was actually chilling. Meanwhile William Burden was cast as Captain Vere in a performance that was a bit croony at times often leaving him sounding more like Nemorino than a senior British naval officer. He lacked a certain sense of Vere's restraint of his own emotions. Of course all of this was secondary to the highly anticipated starring performance of Teddy Tahu Rhodes. He has a wonderful voice and he has all the lanky muscle with glistening pecs so popular with the kids these days. He had frequent opportunities to climb up and down rope ladders using nothing but his arms. Gratuitous, maybe, but not an unaffecting performance. He was a little more on the happy-go-lucky naïve side than was necessary, but you could believe that the other sailors did really love him.

The other highly anticipated performance tonight was that of newly appointed SFO music director Edo de Waart. De Waart has a long history with this company and he was welcomed back warmly in his new role with a performance that had many strong and spirited moments. So, while there are few reasons to like this Billy Budd, it unfortunately is not one for the record books.


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