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This Budd’s for You!

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
09/18/2004 -  and 25, 27, 30 September, 3 October 2004
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Dwayne Croft (Billy Budd), Samuel Ramey (Claggart), Robin Leggate (Captain Vere)
Francesca Zambello (Production Director), Christian Rath (Associate Director), Alison Chitty (Set and Costume Design), Alan Burrett (Lighting Design)
Richard Hickox (Conductor)
Washington Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Billy Budd is an opera that most people either like or don't. It's not a work that resounds with melodic line or easy-to-the-ear tonalities. It is largely dominated by choruses or monolog type deliveries. It features an all male cast (which to some is a deterrent). And the scope of action is limited spatially although psychologically it is boundless. It's all a matter of preference.

A superb cast may not necessarily dissuade one from holding a negative opinion of the work as a work. In fact, one cannot quite imagine spending quality time on an afternoon listening to a recording of Budd, regardless of how stellar the singers. It's just not that kind of work. However, when you find a good cast and splendid, imaginative direction, you can find "Billy Budd" to be a riveting operatic theatre experience.

Such is the case with the Washington National Opera's Francesca Zambello production. Its brilliance of design and execution will find even the reluctant viewer engaged and engulfed in this classic tale of good versus evil on the high seas. Zambello, one of today's most popular operatic directors, has crafted a production that is reflects the starkness of life on board and beneath the decks of the ship, while suggesting the openness and expansiveness of the sea surrounding the core of concern. The set has multiple trap doors, stylized rigging, and a symbolic mast shaped like a cross that hovers constantly over the emotional interactions below. The symbolism was not lost when Billy early in the opera climbed the mast and posed against the mast, presaging his ultimate crucifixion and in the opera's final moments as Billy is hanged high above the crowd, this time parallel to the cross, now a lifeless body that has left the cross. Pretty intense business.

Immensely clever hydraulics lift the raked stage to even sharper angles to reveal below deck quarters. To watch its slow ascent and descent is visually exciting, especially during the stirring battle chase scene when the men's chorus raises the roof, or the deck as it were.

Alison Chitty's set and costume design and Alan Burrett's dramatic lighting design capped off the highly appealing visual elements of this "Budd," while contributing to the poisonous environment in which the principals dwelt and enhancing the psychological layers of emotions that flow between Claggart, Billy Budd, Captain Vere, and assorted other members of the H.M.S. Indomitable crew.

There's no doubting who the real master of this ship is. Zambello is an artist and her fine touch brought heightened drama and appeal to the entire effort. An exceptionally capable cast was assembled for Budd. Dwayne Croft brings fine voice and characterization as the likeable Budd. Croft's easy stage presence provides theatrical credibility and adds to the overall appeal. It is from Croft that we get the opera's most sustained moment of lyricism as he sings "Starry Vere" prior to being hung from the yardarm. It is a moving and poignant moment.

The esteemed Samuel Ramey appears as Claggart, whose only solution for dealing with what he can't have or love is to kill it. Adding to his repertoire of evil villains, Ramey epitomizes evil. Though his rich, deep voice is beginning to show signs of wear in some registers and at softer dynamics does nothing to detract from the totality of a professionally done performance. Robin Leggate, as the guilt filled Vere who sends Billy to his death, is marvelous. His voice, while occasionally thin in the upper registers, soars with lyricism and emotion. The package Leggate offers up is absolutely tops. You cannot help but feel the emotional shroud that has covered his life. Dramatically, it's as good as it gets.

Additionally fine performances are provided by Steven Cole as Squeak, John McVeigh as the Novice, and Conal Coad as a particularly sensitive Dansker. The men's chorus is sensational, displaying enviable quality sound and stage presence.

The celebrated Richard Hickox, a Britten specialist, brings significant insight to the score and imbues it with drama. He masterfully weaves magic between the pit and the stage, drawing from the orchestra extraordinary sound.

All things considered, this "Budd's" for you.

John C. Shulson



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