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when, about 15 minutes before the curtain rose in Pittsburgh, I glanced at the program inserts and saw that Gunn had withdrawn from the final two performances (the ones I had flown in for) due to acute laryngitis.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.