Threaded through the 14 years of Peter Hemming’s stewardship with the Los Angeles Opera, a repertory of Benjamin Britten’s operas figures among the company’s major accomplishments: four works so far, with a fifth, the best-known “Peter Grimes,” slated for October. “Billy Budd,” considered by some if not all as the peak of Britten’s lyric achievement, serves as a glowing finale to the 1999-2000 season, and to Hemmings’ leadership as well.
Francesca Zambello’s production comes from Britain’s Royal Opera, with its astounding Alison Chitty design. Several decks of Herman Melville’s “HMS Indomitable” rise and fall, opening vistas of endless starry skies at one point, and crowding down onto the climactic scene of murder and recrimination as if to trap its principals — the saintly Billy, the insanely lovelorn Claggart and the benevolent but catatonic Captain Vere — in a psychological prison of their own making.
The stage design captures, as well, the multileveled symbolism of Melville’s parable, over which scholars will forever haggle. E.M. Forster’s libretto, while taming some of Melville’s visionary prose, neatly touches up its unspoken homoerotic undercurrents. (The similarity to Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” which Britten also successfully set as his final opera, is made inescapable in Forster’s setting.) Similarly, Zambello’s propensity for freeze-framing Rodney Gilfry’s Billy in a succession of tableaux worthy of any Sunday-school calendar, turned celestial in Alan Burrett’s ecstatic lighting, gaudily highlights another of the fable’s disturbing, captivating undercurrents.
The great “Billy Budd” performances — the Britten-conducted premiere enshrined on the Decca recording, or the John Dexter staging at the Metropolitan Opera — have been, most of all, the triumph of a brilliant acting/singing ensemble, and the Los Angeles version belongs in that company. Conductor Roderick Brydon, who has shepherded all of the L.A. Opera’s Britten so far, tends to build his performances more with care than panache, but care is much to be valued in maintaining the integrity of an enormous all-male cast.
Rodney Gilfry, whose career has been nurtured from the L.A. Opera’s startup, now owns the role of Billy worldwide: brilliantly in command of the clear, poignant eloquence for the final haunting ballad, as well as the physical ease in climbing foretops and ladders. As his antagonist and ultimate victim, Jeffrey Wells creates a hulking, horrific Claggart; Robert Tear’s Captain is exactly right in its tone of incertitude blended into nobility. Among his cohorts, the character of Mr. Redburn, sung by veteran baritone Richard Stilwell — the Met’s first Billy Budd and still an eloquent figure on deck 25 years later — is worthy of particular notice.