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Review: The don't-ask, don't-tell Billy Budd

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Santa Fe Opera’s critically acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” doesn’t ask and doesn’t answer the most obvious question, which has to do with the sexuality of the main character.

This is not the fault of the Santa Fe Opera, much less the guidance of the surpassingly able director Paul Curran. It is part of the tradition of Budd. The none-of-your-business question has been bundled around for more than a hundred years, since Herman Melville’s manuscript “Billy Budd Foretopman” surfaced after the author’s death.

In the unfinished novella, Billy is described as the “handsome sailor,” who “with no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the offhand unaffectedness of natural regalityeeseemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.”

That’s one way to put it.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a genuine heartthrob in the international opera world, plays the title role with a smile “that can be seen through walls,” as opera docent and afficionado Carl Newton put it. As Billy, Rhodes touches and is touched by all the men as he passes by, with the effortless affection politicians can only wish for.

Melville ducked the sexuality question, too, leaving it dangling into the future.


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