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.

But could the choice of subject have been an accident in Britten’s complex and difficult opera? Considering the apparent and circumstantial facts that E.M. Forester, the celebrated homosexual novelist, coauthored (with Eric Crozier) the libretto for the gay composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote the music and whose life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears sang the role of Captain Vere in the 1951 premier at the Grand Opera in London – what else might we conclude?

Had they figured it out, only to keep it in the closet?

Then weigh the inverted malignity of the master-at-arms Claggert (played villainously by Peter Rose), the preposterously operatic love-triangle between Budd, Claggert and the brooding Capt.Vere (William Burden), on whom the weight of a world at war and the crimes of men weighs most.

The music, conducted by Edo de Waart, requires a full orchestra and then some for the majestic sweep of events and intricate subtlety for the emotional microstructure. In a radio interview, de Waart called special attention to three almost subliminal notes with the power to pull tears, as Vere delivers the death verdict to Budd for killing Claggert.

The set of the man-of-war, the HMS Indominitable, is classically satisfying in line, texture and perspective. The revelation of the larval squirming in crew’s quarters below decks, compared to the expansive wooden panels of the captain’s cabin, says much about the political situation then and now, as does the plot about fear-mongering, surveillance and entrapment.

Britten’s score is demanding, worth far more attention than most of us are able to spare. The composer’s attention to every detail and nuance is intense.

There are, after all, so many other big questions to ask in an opera tingling with psychological sensitivity within a tragic plot heavily symbolic of human society at large and a boatload of characters sailing into an ocean of ultimate moral and political issues. They would include the nature of good and evil, the chaos of freedom, the cruelty of authority and the inadequacy of justice in the fallen state of mankind. It is also about the relationship of the dead with the living and the fictional with the real, of honor’s debt to selective memory and beauty broken by imperfection.

Perhaps it is not so strange that Melville, Britten and everybody else, know about the primal urge, but continue to keep it clothed. We – that is, the big, boiling, infinitely diverse collections of individuals – still don’t really know how live with it or without it.

“Billy Budd” plays again July 25, 31; Aug. 6, 14, and 21. For reservations call the box office at 505-986-5900 or toll free at 800-280-4654.