Benjamin Britten's 'Billy Budd' Arrives at the L.A. Opera

3:11 PM PST 02/21/2014 by Jordan Riefe
Robert Millard
"Billy Budd"

"It is long, it is hard, it is arduous. You can’t sleep on the podium in this piece," conductor James Conlon told THR of the three-hour opera, which begins its run Feb. 22.

Winding up a yearlong celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centennial, L.A. Opera presents the composer’s most ambitious opera, Billy Budd, featuring definitive staging by Francesca Zambello from her 1995 Covent Garden production. It stars Liam Bonner in the lead role, and is conducted by the company’s own James Conlon, with performances Feb. 22 through March 16.

When it was composed in 1951, Billy Budd was Britten’s most daring work, addressing homosexual themes that were taboo at the time. Today, such themes are less challenging than the production’s technical logistics, including a levitating stage that gives audiences a view of the action above and below deck, as well as a battle scene involving clashing swords and cannon fire.

“It is absolutely the opera with the greatest physical dimensions, the biggest opera, enormous chorus, 20 soloists, holding that all on a harness, that’s an enormous job,” Conlon tells The Hollywood Reporter about the three-hour running time. “It is long, it is hard, it is arduous. You can’t sleep on the podium in this piece. You’ve got to be on top of everything, holding it all together.”

Based on the novella by Herman Melville, Billy Budd tells the story of a handsome young sailor who becomes the object of desire and enmity of his superior, Claggart, who levels false charges of attempted mutiny against Budd. In a hearing before the ship’s Captain Veer, Budd attempts to explain himself but a stutter stands in his way and in his frustration he strikes Claggart, accidentally killing him.

“The big themes are innocence betrayed or destroyed,” says Conlon, addressing not just Billy Budd, but Britten’s other operas, including Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw. “He had an enormous concern about justice and violence. He was a pacifist. He was very troubled by one human being’s violence against another, whatever form that took, whether it was war or individual violence.”

Britten was gay at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in the U.K., but that didn’t keep him from addressing such themes, employing code, both written and musical, to describe Claggart’s attraction to Budd.

“He focuses on Billy Budd because Billy Budd is beautiful and he is clearly attracted to Billy Budd,” explains Conlon, who authored a paper on the subject of music and coding in the opera in the Hudson Review. Writing in 1888, Melville, (who some have speculated was gay), employed a subtler approach dwelling on what he refers to as the “flower of masculine beauty and strength,” while the opera’s libretto, written by novelist E.M. Forster (A Passage to India) and Eric Crozier, more overtly illustrates the story’s homosexual undertones.

The novella, published posthumously in 1924, is considered to be unfinished due to its ambiguous ending. In the final pages, before his execution, Budd forgives Captain Veer even though he could have granted Budd clemency.

“Is that what it’s all about, Captain Veer’s redemption? Or is Captain Veer benighted?” asks Conlon, noting that Veer is essentially a good man although he chooses to abdicate his authority at the expense of the innocent.

In the book Veer is a minor presence, but in the opera he provides a stronger sense of closure by framing the libretto as an older man looking back at an episode that haunts him into old age.

“He does have regret and he does have guilt and he does have remorse,” Conlon says of the captain, who seems to rationalize his mistake. “He feels that in Billy’s forgiveness he himself has found redemption. He has seen the coming light in the eternal redemption.”

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