If you are an opera lover, an opera hater, or if you’ve never been to the opera you absolutely must get yourself to the Los Angeles Opera production of Billy Budd. I attended (and live-tweeted) the final dress rehearsal for this production last night. The one word I walked away saying and heard repeated later on backstage by Billy Budd, AKA Liam Bonner, himself was this: ACCESSIBLE.
Most people are familiar with Herman Melville’s story of Billy Budd. Folks of my generation most likely read the short story in school and were subjected to watching the 1960’s black and white film. I can’t say I recall being overly stimulated by the movie and I know we made fun of it being black and white. Why has there not been a remake of this movie?
This opera is very easy on the palette. The music is fantastic. The libretto is written in English and there are no lady divas whaling away on the stage so you can sit back and enjoy the testosterone driven debauchery and vulgarity of young sailor men quite comfortably.
Stealing from the latest “list” craze, here are my 5 Reasons You Should See LA Opera’s Production of Billy Budd:
1. The libretto is written in English. Need I say more? You’ll still be able to read the captions and while they are helpful at times, I think you’ll find the story easy to follow and the diction quite clear. Accessible.
2. All Men, All the Time. I actually wondered if I’d miss or long for a female voice but Britten writes a fairly diverse score within the all male cast limitation. There are a fairly significant number of meaty roles in this opera and I later went back to count 17 named roles in addition to the full male chorus. Key point: sailor men with fabulous voices, some wearing shirts, many not wearing shirts. It works.
3. The Music. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was an influential 20th century English composer, conductor and pianist. I was familiar with his operas and vocal music but apart from a few orchestral pieces here and there I haven’t spent much time with his music. Last night it occurred to me that the Billy Budd score is quite theatrical. It may seem silly for me to use that word because opera is innately “theatrical” and most composers strive to bring the drama out in their music but it struck me that this particular music and the way it is orchestrated would easily appeal to people who enjoy contemporary movie scores, broadway, etc. Accessible.
4. The Scenery. The story takes place on a ship so of course there are ropes, masts, and wooden decks but this particular set was designed so that the ship’s deck juts out to a point over the orchestra pit. There was a scene where the deck was raised and action took place both on top and below deck. It added scale to the stage and served the story very well. I had a little giggle over the sleeping cocoons but for the most part the design was really quite smart.
5. Liam Bonner and Richard Croft. I highlight those two men but you’ll likely read positive critical review for others and in particular two gentlemen making their LA Opera debuts. Greer Grimsley plays a convincingly smarmy and conniving John Claggart and Anthony Michaels-Moore plays a very likable Mr. Redburn.
Liam Bonner is awesome in the role of Billy Budd. He’s young, fresh and energetic in real life and he brings this all to the stage. Oh, and he can act. We tweeted and crushed on Mr. Bonner throughout the night but Richard Croft as Captain Vere definitely deserves some kudos. I had a manic love/hate feel for Captain Vere. He doesn’t just let Billy down but he shows himself to be weak and bit of wuss. For such a great and well-loved Captain he really disappoints. Nonetheless, at the end of the night Richard Croft was able to coerce a little forgiveness from me during the Epilogue.
(Think Brady Bunch – “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha”):
Billy Budd opens this Saturday, February 22nd and runs through March 16th. For tickets and more info see the LA Opera website.