The novelist E.M. Forster’s English libretto for Billy Budd, adapted with Eric Crozier from Herman Melville’s posthumous morality tale, is all prose, so wordy that the Met titles often condensed a few lines during the season premiere Friday night of John Dexter’s 1978 production. But Benjamin Britten’s score, a mixture of classical grandeur and contemporary anxiety, often compensates with poetry. Sometimes it’s as simple as the up and down of the strings in the overture of this seafaring opera set entirely on a ship, which suggest the soft undulations of calm waters. Or it’s the choppy rhythms of the dialogue, which evoke angrier seas. Or it’s the several long, wordless dramatic interludes in which Britten lets the music express enormities that words cannot, like the captain of the HMS Indomitable telling the title character that Budd has been sentenced to death—”the most celebrated passage of the score,” Thomas May writes in his production notes.
Budd (Nathan Gunn) receives such a sentence for striking, and accidentally killing, an officer, Claggart (James Morris), who had been trying to frame Budd for plans to commit mutiny. Claggart is an Iago figure better understood as Judas, with Budd his Christ; Captain Vere (John Daszak, making a memorable Met debut), then, is Pilate, and the composer and librettists pitch him as the tragic hero, the one racked by guilt over the sentence he carries out, which he might as easily have commuted. (You could also find some homoerotic undertones—almost everybody in this all-male cast of characters loves Billy Budd, but some seem to love him; Claggart could be a self-loathing gay displacing his contempt onto Budd.) Departing from the Melville, the opera features a framing device in which an aged Vere anguishes over the Budd affair from many years earlier. If Claggart is bad and Budd good—if one is wrong and the other right—Vere represents the moral complexity in between. He’s the dramatic complication of a simple dichotomy, the personification of the shroud of fog that hangs over the opera’s ocean voyage.
This short-lived revival plays again Thursday and Saturday evenings. More info here.
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Act II’s “Look, through the port comes the moonshine astray”: