21 May 2007

always some flaw, some imperfection in the divine image

Actual dialogue overheard in the lower lobby of the Pittsburgh Opera House during a Billy Budd intermission:

Wife: What was that other Billy musical we saw?
Husband: (after a pause) Billy Elliott.

I hope they managed to keep from confusing the two.

After seeing Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd at SF Opera a couple of years ago, I somewhat perversely wanted to see someone else in the role, because he was so good I couldn’t imagine a better Billy. So I had another little lesson in being careful what you wish for when, about 15 minutes before the curtain rose in Pittsburgh, I glanced at the program inserts and saw that Gunn had withdrawn from the final two performances (the ones I had flown in for) due to acute laryngitis. David Adam Moore had flown in to save the day from La Scala, where he was playing Maximilian in Candide. I give him a lot of credit for an excellent performance under the circumstances, and I would have been perfectly happy with him if I had never heard Gunn’s profounder take on the role. Thursday night Moore initially was drowned a bit by the orchestra but I think that was partly jet-lag and partly unfamiliarity with the house (which has very good acoustics, I thought, from my front-row seat; the Benedum Center is a converted silent movie palace, and unlike some others I’ve been in, it’s not just a vast frou-frou barn where sound goes to die – but it’s certainly ornate; everything that isn’t rose and gold is soft green and silver, and every spare surface that doesn’t hold a cherub, rosette, or garland is be-griffined and hippocampus'd). Moore had no problems on Saturday singing over the orchestra, and his performance was a bit more detailed (he had sung in this Francesca Zambello production elsewhere). But here’s an example of why I prefer Gunn: for Billy’s last line (“Starry Vere, God bless you!”), which became my touchstone for the role after Gunn’s San Francisco performances, Moore gave the forthright manly reading that I had always expected; but when Gunn sang it in San Francisco, it was a weirdly supernal benediction that deepened the character spiritually for me in ways I hadn’t even contemplated (and I’ve heard the bootlegs, and they don’t quite capture what he did with the line). Basically, I went to Pittsburgh to hear him sing that line again.

Gunn also just seems to have more of the inherent charisma that Billy needs; again, nothing against Moore, but Billy has to embody goodness and beauty in a way that goes beyond most of his actions, and Gunn is just a very magnetic performer on stage (which is one reason his Clyde was less passive, less of a tabula rasa, than Dreiser’s). I was disappointed by the cancellation, but I actually felt worse for Gunn than for myself: I still got to see a solid production of a great opera (plus the delightful city of Pittsburgh), but he had to cancel a fairly rare chance to do one of his favorite roles. I get the impression Billy Budd is still considered a bit of a hard sell, though I have recommended it to non-opera-going friends who are fans of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, or just of morally complex dramas. But during the intermission Thursday, while I was thinking about how haunting the saxophone melody is, I heard an old woman, who was, alas! probably a more typical opera-goer than I am, announce that she “likes operas with tunes,” which of course is just a way a saying she likes things in which she already knows every note. I resisted the temptation to punch her, because I was raised right (thanks, Mom! Please accept this tribute in lieu of not calling you on Mother’s Day, which you hate anyway). But even if you know every note of Billy Budd, you can never resolve it, which is why I think it can be tricky to balance the staging. On the whole, I liked Zambello’s production, but ultimately I preferred the one for San Francisco Opera, which I think was a little less overwrought and therefore a little less obvious about directing the viewer’s reactions. I felt that the Pittsburgh production emphasized moment-to-moment drama at the expense of the opera’s overall sense. Despite the undercurrent of the recent Nore mutiny, and behind that, the fear of the miasmic ideas of the French revolution (hence the officer’s anger at Billy’s farewell to his previous ship, the Rights of Man), you need to feel that, within the more brutal standards of the eighteenth century, the Indomitable is basically a well-run ship. Otherwise there’s no way to see Vere (Robin Leggate in this production) as an able and admired commander, or to understand why the sailors think they’re better off under him than under the French. Unless there’s a basic order and stability within the class system on the ship, you can’t see why the intellectual Vere would hate the disorderly French and prefer the British system. Vere may puzzle his officers, but they respect him – but in this production, in every scene they’re openly skeptical of him and practically rolling their eyes in a way that undercuts the sense of the ship’s hierarchy, and without understanding that power and order on the ship derive from the hierarchy, you can’t understand why Vere has to protect the hierarchy by hanging angelic Billy for inadvertently killing his unjust accuser, Claggart. Also, the opening scene with the crew (and, on Thursday night but not Saturday, the scene in which the sailors assemble to see Billy hanged) exhibited a level of exaggerated brutality from the officers and resentment from the men that, though it made for dramatic punch, also made mutiny seem like the only logical and appropriate outcome, in which case why does the crew want to fight the French instead of joining them? The crew’s unrest after Billy’s hanging also went too far – they were a Fritz Lang crowd groping relentlessly forward, and it seemed more like actual rebellion than muttered resentment. I did like the set, which contains the essential: there is a self-contained unit (a sort of jutting triangle that could be raised hydraulically) isolated in a pleasingly abstract blue element. The deck would usually rise when there was a need to show below-decks, but it did also rise to give a physical and emotional lift to Captain Vere’s last soliloquy, when he reflects on the peace that Billy’s forgiveness has given him – to me, this made the finale, though theatrically striking, too triumphant and affirmative, and I lost the meditative mythic quality of the phrase “long ago now, years ago, centuries ago” that struck me so powerfully in San Francisco. One small fault: after Billy’s hanging the safety harness was too visible (it’s hard to gauge, but I think Moore is shorter than Gunn, so the switch in singers might have made the difference). I was amused to see that at least one prominent sailor appeared to have used make-up to give himself six-pack abs. You gotta love sitting in the front row.

But these objections are mostly of degree rather than substance. Billy Budd, like Cosi Fan Tutte, another work in which Gunn is outstanding, is one of those opalescent operas that flash different colors from moment to moment and from viewing to viewing, and there’s no ultimately right way to stage them. Zambello did by and large avoid the more reductive approaches to the work. One is to present Billy as a Christ figure, which I can’t quite see – he’s more an exemplar of innate goodness than a moral teacher; you can’t quite imagine Billy delivering the Sermon on the Mount – which is the tricky part, and why the baritone has to seem like someone with more going on than just a well-used gym membership. He undergoes his own spiritual journey after the murder, from begging his Captain to save him to accepting and willing his own fate (like Wotan), to understanding and forgiveness. I wouldn’t go too far in citing Melville to explain the opera, since Britten and Co. made some significant changes to his work, but it’s worth noting that it is Claggart whom Melville compares to the Man of Sorrows. He also describes Claggart as good-looking, though without the noble quality of Billy (much as Gunther is a warrior and king, but still not quite at the inherent heroic level of Siegfried). I do find the opera’s version of Claggart less satisfying than Melville’s, though perhaps more suited to the stage. I think Forster and Crozier were trying for an Iago-like blackhole of evil, but he seems more like Scarpia, striding around saying nasty things (“then let him crawl”). Greer Grimsley was fine, but for reasons out of his control it’s very difficult not to seem like a stage villain in the part. He (and the production) handled the sexual undertones in a fairly restrained way, though I still found him a bit too openly sadistic and too physical with some of the men. These days it’s fairly commonplace to assert that Claggart’s motive is sexual longing for Billy, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out, at least as part of it, but I think it’s a mistake to narrow his motive in that way, for several reasons. Claggart’s envy could be based on sexual longing for Billy, but it could also be based on sexual jealousy of a man superior in appearance and appeal. It could be the hatred the conventional and rule-bound have for freer spirits. Also, Captain Vere has a similar reaction to Billy: unmistakable parallels are drawn between Claggart (“Beauty, handsomeness, goodness, I will destroy you”) and Vere (“Beauty, handsomeness, goodness, it is for me to destroy you”). There are also what one might call “political” objections to reducing all emotions between men to the sexual, or simplistically identifying homosexuality (or repressed homosexuality) with evil. But the main problem with reducing Claggart’s motivation to repressed longing for Billy is that it enables a contemporary audience to assume that if only Claggart lived in a more accepting urban area in our enlightened times, there would be no problem – it reduces the dilemma to one of temporal sexual mores, no longer relevant to the enlightened, instead of a timeless dilemma of justice versus right, or of the divine versus the earthly. This opera seems to me to be more like Das Rheingold, a work examining the problem of what is just in a corrupt social order, and the dilemma of those who must maintain that order even while realizing its corruption (with the erotic as just one quicksilver factor among many), rather than, say, Carmen, a work examining the destruction of an orderly life through erotic obsession. But it’s always a mistake to single out a sole profundity from Melville’s oracular fables and feel that you’ve solved their puzzles.

8 comments:

sfmike said...

Dear Patrick: You deserve a Collectors' Edition backstage "Billy Budd" T-shirt, which I happened to make in an edition of 36 for some fellow supernumeraries when we were sailors with Nathan Gunn in your epochal production. The T-shirt says "Super Seamen" at the top (this was my favorite shouted instruction of the assistant directors, "Super Seamen, run to stage right and look out towards the ocean, over there, no, I mean, over there." Below the double entendre it reads, on three separate lines, "Beauty, Handsomeness, Goodness," and refrained from adding "it is in my power to destroy you tonight."

Among Britten's many masterpieces, "Billy Budd" may be the queerest. Melville was a homo who loved men from many cultures. E.M. Forster, the librettist was a discreet homo who loved working-class men from other countries. Britten and his lover Pears, who debuted as Captain Vere, were aksi major homos and in Britten's case a tortured boy-lover. The story itself is about an impossibly beautiful and good young sailor whose entrance onto a warship causes complete disorder throughout all orders on account of his exquisitely sincere sexiness. The whole thing doesn't get any queerer.

But you're right. Playing it anachronistically gay is all wrong. It's not how it was written, felt, composed. And it's one of the great masterworks of the twentieth-century.

I'm not as crazy about the Nathan Gunn San Francisco production as you, even though I was in it, because I thought the whole thing was way too Germanic Expressionist. There needed to be more color, more a sense of the beauty of the sea which ripples through every note of the score.

The San Francisco Opera used to have a nice, serviceable production based on the original John Piper design from Covent Garden, and a young baritone named Dale Duesing sang it both times. The guy never had much of a career, but his performance as "Billy," both times, was exquisite. I cried every time he sang his "Fathoms, down fathsoms..." lullaby and with Nathan Gunn in that particular production, that was never the case.

In any case, the opera really belongs to Captain Vere. I saw a performance by James King late in his career in that old production and I've still not quite gotten over it. The final, quiet notes of an old man horrified by his own stupidity and amazed at the ways of fate were a given perfect rendering.

Glad you got to hear the opera again. It really is a strange, elusive masterpiece.

pjwv said...

Hey Mike,
As a long-time reader of your Civic Center blog, I remember that T-shirt. And I can't think of Super Seamen without thinking of Smithers telling Mr Burns "women and seamen don't mix, sir" in a Simpsons King Kong parody. But to go back to Britten: Billy Budd his queerest work? More than Death in Venice? I'm curious why you would think that -- Death in Venice hinges on Aschenbach realizing his feelings for Tadzio are sexual, whereas I think it is possible to present Billy Budd as primarily a tale of law versus right. As I said, more like Rheingold than Carmen, and I should note that Rheingold does start with an act of erotic rejection.
Even given the sexual preferences you list of the work's creators (and it's worth noting that Melville, whatever Whitmanesque feelings or adventures he may have had, was also married for decades and had several children), it wouldn't necessarily follow that they meant this work to be about those feelings -- in fact, given the repressive society in which Britten, Forster, and Co lived, their feelings could mean that they would avoid public emphasis on such risky topics (much as Britten insisted that the separation of Peter Grimes from his society was not due to sexual inclination, or any relations with his apprentices). Again, it's a matter of emphasis, and I'm not saying anything as absurd as that there is no homoerotic element, or it should be de-emphasized. But I do think playing it up makes the drama dependent on short-term sexual attitudes in a way that lets current audiences (many of whom are there because of the homoerotic element) off the hook. Also, if the responses to Billy are primarily sexual, it makes him look a little dense for not realizing that, and just as I resist the reduction of male emotions to the strictly sexual and the reduction of evil to sexual (homoerotic or not) longing, so I resist the idea that goodness means you're just not that bright or perceptive. I would disagree with you that Billy's entrance onto the warship causes complete disorder -- I think in both the story and the opera he is seen as someone who unites the men and brings the crew together through his personality -- his goodness (and the officers realize this -- "he could have been a leader"), rather than as someone who tears them apart due to conflicting sexual jealousies. I've actually worked with a couple of guys in various jobs who could be described as Billy-like -- strikingly handsome, but not vain; good guys with magnetic personalities. In one case this worked against the guy, and though sexual longing might have played a part for some, I suspect it was mostly an alpha male response by older executives to a perceived threat from a younger, more appealing and virile man. In another case it seemed to help the guy but there were a few who spread surprisingly spiteful rumors about him -- again, I think this was envy rather than sexual longing (though I wouldn't deny that could have been some element, however small, in the envy). But judging these degrees is the fascination of the opera.
I think you might have liked the Zambello set -- the blue was certainly beautiful. Since I've seen German Expressionist films that actually weren't German Expressionist enough for me, I didn't have the same reaction as you to the SF production, though I can see your point that it didn't bring out the beauty of the sea, or the isolation it causes, enough. But I prefer either production to one that obsesses over whether the rigging is correct, etc. I haven't seen the earlier production you mention -- I did see the Thomas Allen version years ago, but I don't remember it very well -- I think it was my first exposure to the work. I do know of Dale Duesing -- he sang Ottone (same as Nathan Gunn) in one of the Poppea DVDs I watched before I went to Houston last year. Your description of the final, quiet notes and their power is so true -- and I did think the elevated stage and triumphant swell in the Zambello production swamped the uncertain final moment in her production.
If you're actually handing out T-shirts, I can wear either L or XL. ;-)

pjwv said...

Ah, another thing about German Expressionism -- the Zambello production also had a strong element of that, hence my reference to Fritz Lang crowds (I was thinking specifically of Metropolis). I thought it was less effective in this production than in SF, though.

sfmike said...

"Death in Venice" has always left me cold, maybe because it feels more like a pedophile story than a male/male "love" story, or a tale about an Apollonian Northener literally rotting away in the Dionysian South of Venezia. In any case, it's always given me the creeps, in the novella, Visconti film and Britten opera versions, though I think the music may be some of the best Britten ever wrote.

I've neve read "Billy Budd," but I remember watching the Terence Stamp/Robert Ryan/Peter Ustinov movie as a kid any number of times on late night Los Angeles area television. It's a perfectly defensible and square "hetero" version of the tale, and it focuses on the Good vs. Evil/Darkness vs. Light aspects while pretty much ignoring the erotic, though Terence Stamp in his movie debut gave a great, subversively beautiful performance. He didn't do anything as good until "Priscilla" decades later.

But the Britten/Forster opera version is reeking with male/male love energy vis a vis Billy, both thwarted (Claggart and his minions) and emotionally consummated (Vere and the rest of the ship). Claggart's "Credo" is almost embarrassingly explicit about the fact that if "I can't have you, I will destroy you tonight!" And let's not even go near Captain Vere's "He is Good, and You Are Evil!" possibly my favorite English line in opera.

I just finished Tab Hunter's autobiography while spending a week in Palm Springs, and it was awful, and he's awful, an exemplar of a certain kind of discreet, closet case, Republican fag kind of moment that flourished in the 1950s, which was when "Billy Budd" was written. Forster, Britten & Pears may have been discreet, but they were also pacifists (during World War II, when that took courage) and admirers of other cultures and ways of thinking, and they were "gay" in a commie brotherhood kind of way with which I'm proud to associate. And their work in "Billy Budd" reflects all that.

So, even though there's plenty of competition in Britten's work ("Midsummer Night's Dream," "Curlew River" "Death in Venice") I'm still voting for "Billy Budd" as the Great Queer Opera of the 20th Century (Handel already has the 18th century wrapped up).

pjwv said...

Mike, I think Death in Venice is meant to be kind of creepy and unsettling, and also comic. My feeling was that homoeroticism is absolutely essential for making sense of that story, whereas Billy Budd would make sense even without its homoerotic element (or with that element minimized), though you and others might reasonably disagree with my view on that. I should add that the Zambello production, I assume to counter the implications of Claggart/Vere destroying Billy, presents a fairly warm and tender relationship between the Novice and the Novice's Friend, who was played by one of the better-looking shirtless sailors. I haven't seen either the Visconti Death or the Stamp Billy Budd, though both are out on DVD now -- the Budd came out a few weeks ago, in fact. I've netflixed it, though I'd better do some queue adjustment if I want to see it sometime earlier than five years, since it's #475. They also have the Thomas Allen DVD, so I added that as well.
If you love the opera, Melville's story makes an interesting comparison; they made some significant changes, mostly with Claggart and with Vere's fate.
What is your Handel choice?

sfmike said...

"Giulio Cesare" for the operas, "Jeptha" for the oratorios.

pjwv said...

Jeptha is also my favorite oratorio! Though I do have a soft spot for Messiah -- I know people (singers) are sick of it, but it still pulls me in.
I also have a soft spot for Cesare since it was seeing the Peter Sellars production live in Boston that made me realize how special Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was.

sfmike said...

Jeptha I was lucky enough to see being conducted in the 1970s by Calvin Simmons, the black gay conducting phenom from the Bay Area who died young in a canoe in New England. It was performed at the fancy little Calvary Presbyterian Church on Fillmore in Pacific Heights. I don't remember the soloists, but Simmons used the Piedmont Young Persons' Chorus because he said "their sound fit the choral music better," and he was right.

"Cesare" I saw in a bad, truncated version at the Curran Theatre in the 1970s with a 20-year-old Carol Vaness blowing me out of the water. Ms. Vaness, when young, was one of the most amazing Mozart singers in the world, and getting the full dose in a small theater was wonderful. I also really like the libretto, as it's fairly amoral in a "Coronation of Poppea" kind of way.

Lorraine Hunt I'd read about for years but I didn't understand the big deal until I saw her in "El Nino" at Davies Hall where she even managed to upstage the bad Sellars video and the silly dancers writhing around.