Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Hey Sailor!

May 05, 2012

James Morris and Nathan Gunn Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Remember all those things I said about the Metropolitan Opera’s new Robert Lepage-directed Ring Cycle yesterday? Well now I’m having second thoughts. Not so much about the overall quality of the production itself, but how it fits into the greater scheme of things. After seeing the premiere of the company’s final production of the 2011/2012 season, Britten’s Billy Budd on Friday, I’m reminded of of some of what Met Opera General Director Peter Gelb was faced with when taking over the company in 2006 – a roster of dozens of decrepit, ugly, outdated productions that had more or less left the company sidelined artistically and contributed to a slow but steady slippage financially as well. The new Ring may be boring, but at least its an effort to replace a production that should have been gone long ago. The Met’s current production of Billy Budd, originally directed by John Dexter entered the world in 1978, making it older than several of the performers currently appearing in it. It is the only production of the opera that the Met has ever presented and it hasn't been seen here since 1997. And now it has been wheeled out again largely as a vehicle for star baritone Nathan Gunn to perform one of his signature roles for three performances only at the very tail end of the current season.

Dexter’s vision may have been exciting over three decades ago, but now the claustrophobic, dark set looks quizzical despite its many levels which expand and contract when needed to make room for the chorus. All this movement isn’t as noisy as Lepage’s machine set for the Ring, but it’s just as bland. Oddly everything outside of the boat is in pitch-black darkness suggesting all of the depicted events transpire in the middle of a starless night. Maybe so, but how the boat gets around without even the suggestions of masts is something that nags in the back of the mind for the whole show. Ropes are pulled during the first chorus number, but the main activity depicted there isn’t raising the mast as much as scrubbing the deck, which more or less sets the tone for the rest of the evening. Probably the highlight of the whole evening comes at the start of Act II when the chorus appears ready for an attack on a nearby French ship, spreading themselves out on the set like some giant wedding cake and firing cannons. But none of this is particularly satisfying dramatically.

The musical performance on opening night fared only marginally better. As mentioned the show was an excuse to have Gunn perform one of his signature roles, and while that is a great idea, Dexter’s production often sidelines the character. It’s also a performance almost every other opera house offered up over a decade ago. The out-of-date production may have been an issue in hesitating to revive the production for Gunn, and at this point he isn't enough to save it. He is handsome and honey-voiced, and, wig aside, he embodies this role. But there's a lot more to Britten's operas than star turns and musically not everything else fared so well. Again the orchestra and even more concerning, the chorus, sounded decidedly under-rehearsed. Conductor David Robertson elected to take strangely slow tempi throughout making the show feel more like Pelléas et Mélisande than Melville’s tale of morality and duty at sea.

The cast featured another throwback to 1978 as well with James Morris and Claggert, a role he performed in that opening season as well opposite Peter Pears as Vere. Morris has worn a bit better than the production overall and he does project evil well, but the lower range of his voice has thinned considerably since his heyday. The biggest ovation went to John Daszak who dominated most of the evening with a nuanced and detailed performance as Captain Vere. There are a lot of other familiar faces in the cast who were fun to see such as Kyle Ketelsen, Keith Miller, Ryan McKinny, Eliot Madore, among others, but the pleasure in any of these brief solo turns couldn't tip the balance toward a cohesive performance. But sometimes things can improve with a few performances, so if you've missed this show from your childhood, it's back as it always was before with two more performances next Thursday and Saturday.



Brian is absolutely correct. I was privileged to see the original production at the MET in 1978, which marked Peter Pears' debut at the house. It was an overwhelming experience, musically, emotionally and theatrically. Not so what I witnessed last night. No drama, no tension, glacial pacing, dull staging, and I do not remember the set being so dark and gloomy so much of the time. "Billy Budd" is a great opera, unique in the twentieth century canon. It deserves to find converts, which the current production will not achieve—decidedly the opposite. A significant disappointment.

David Katz
I was at Billy Budd Friday night and I could barely keep my eyes open. I don't understand the rave reviews (see, e.g., NYT).

You pretty much summed it up for me. It was BORING. Drab. And the music sucked.

I saw a Ring Cycle and while it was long, I mostly stayed awake throughout the four operas and, for the most part, I was entertained. Not so with Billy Boy.
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