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Decoding Herman Melville, E.M. Forster and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd (Photos: Robert Millard)

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd (Photos: Robert Millard)

When Herman Melville died in 1891, the Great American Writer was all but forgotten. After his first novel was published in 1846 Typee became an instant bestseller and the young New Yorker who had called a whaling ship his Harvard skyrocketed to the 19th century equivalent of literati celebrity status. But just a few years later, after he published the metaphorical Moby Dick, Melville lost his audience and spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, paying the bills by spending his days working as a customs inspector in Manhattan. But, presumably at night, as determined as his character Bartleby the Scrivener, he continued to write. In 1888 the undaunted scribbler began the philosophical Billy Budd -- and perhaps one could say that Benjamin Britten and his librettists E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier “completed” it with their adaptation of Melville’s novella.

LA Opera’s production of Billy Budd is certainly the grimmest, most dramatic work this reviewer has ever seen mounted on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Melville’s searing saga centers on the title character, a beatific mariner who is press-ganged to serve aboard the British warship the H.M.S. Indomitable in the year 1797, when England and revolutionary France clashed. Unlike his other comrades who chafe at being coerced to go to sea Billy Budd (the stellar six-foot-four baritone Liam Bonner), is pleased to serve king and country, perhaps because the formerfoundling finds his place among the 700 man crew. With his beauty, agility and enthusiasm Billy quickly rises in popularity and -- literally -- to riding the sails as a foretopman, whose nautical post is the platform at the foremast, the mast closest to the ship’s bow.

Jonathan Michie, Greg Fedderly, and James Creswell

Jonathan Michie, Greg Fedderly, and James Creswell

Billy’s beauty, however, is marred by a speech defect, which leads him to stutter. [Plot Spoiler Alert!] Both prove to be his undoing, as the cruel Claggart (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley), the Indomitable’s abominable master-at-arms, conspires to crush Billy. His menacing portrayal of the ominous officer truly puts the “grim” into Grimsley, as Claggart charges Billy with high crimes, setting innocence on a collision course with wickedness. Struck dumb by the unfounded allegations the dumbfounded foundling strikes out. This places Captain Vere (tenor Richard Croft), a decent man who is an n eye witness to the act, between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as he must choose between hewing closely to Britain’s Articles of War or a more ethical response.

Why does Claggart set out to destroy the sublime Billy? This writer theorizes that Billy’s beauty roused the closeted Claggart’s desire -- but in those homophobic times, rather than try to fulfill his passion as, shall we say, Brokeback sailors, the officer must annihilate the object of his lust. Billy must be obliterated because his presence ignites Claggart’s libidinous impulses, and by eliminating the cause of his yearning and going all Uganda on poor naïve Billy, the master-at-arms “conquers” his homoeroticism and thusly proves he isn’t one of “them.” Claggart has nipped his homosexuality in the -- well -- “Budd” (or so he deludes himself into thinking).

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart with Keith Jameson as the Novice.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart with Keith Jameson as the Novice.

Winston Churchill, who’d served at the Admiralty, reputedly quipped that “buggery” was an old British Naval tradition. This opera’s cast of about 75 performers is all-male. In our more enlightened times, we can better understand the intent of this story set in the 18th century by Melville, who began writing it in 1888. The loss of innocence -- in particular, of sexual innocence -- is a recurring theme of Britten. It is also a leitmotif of the two other productions of Britten’s works -- the spooky The Turn of the Screw and the funny Albert Herring, which also starred Bonner -- that LA Opera presented as part of its celebration of the centennial of the British composer’s birth.

In addition to the subject of sexuality, Britten and his librettists -- the famed humanist novelist E.M. Forster (the anti-imperial A Passage To India) and Eric Crozier -- slyly injected an important political angle into this version of Melville’s novella, which is set against the tempestuous tide of the French Revolution. Throughout the opera there are more anti-“Frenchy” slurs than there were during the George W. Bush “Freedom Fries” days. Billy has the misfortune of having previously sailed aboard a ship named the Rights O’ Man, and when he naively repeats these words Claggart and company fear that the foretopman is stirring up a mutiny by proclaiming the ideology of the French revolutionaries. Of course, that revolution’s great champion, Tom Paine, wrote the radical manifesto called The Rights of Man, so amidst the paranoia the misunderstood, apolitical Billy is screwed, blued and tattooed; no matter the doomed youth’s steadfast loyalty to His Majesty.

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At one point during his drumhead court martial Billy is interrogated about being an adherent of the anti-monarchist ideology, and his not-so-grand inquisitors almost ask him: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Jacobins?” -- Robespierre’s radical party. Britten’s opera, of course, was first produced in 1951, during the height of the Red Scare, and the composer and his librettists were quite possibly making a clever reference to the anti-communist hysteria of the era. It’s almost as if poor Billy’s court martial is an allegory for the House Un-American Activities Committee and/or Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Today, of course, the contemporary witch-hunters surveilling the population and bombing Muslims with drone missiles combat “terrorists” and other subversives du jour.

LA Opera’s well-acted production, as directed by Julia Pevzner, ends with a tip of the hat towards the mass revolts sweeping the world, from Ukraine to Cairo and beyond, as the sailors are restless and there’s some mass action mise-en-scene beneath the mizzenmast. While Act I sets up the plot and provides necessary exposition, the second act is a theatrical tour-de-force, with a near nautical battle as the Indomitable swoops down on a French frigate and more.

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Billy Budd’s set is nothing less than stunning. When one ponders the high cost of prime opera tickets, one should take into consideration that the sea-faring set, hydraulics and all, was shipped all the way from the U.K. to L.A. for this West Coast undertaking. The prow juts over the orchestra pit and is lined with blue Styrofoam-type material to suggest the ocean. The mast is suggestive of not only a cross -- upon which the foretopman is, so to speak, crucified -- but is a sort of visual pun, as the misbegotten Billy is “double-crossed.” This reviewer won’t ruin what is done with the maritime set, especially in the gripping second act with its spectacular grand finale, but suffice it to say that the imaginative, jaw-dropping stagecraft is magnificent to behold, even in this day and age of CGI.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart and Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart and Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.

Britten’s music is often appropriately portentous, but some sea shanties help lighten the mood, as do a few costumed lads presumably shipping out on their maiden voyage. Grant Gershon is the chorus master (but not to say the master-at-arms). According to James Conlon, Billy Budd -- which requires 200 people to present and stage it -- is the 100th opera his wand has commanded. What an appropriate number for Britten’s centennial.

I’m a huge Melville lover and in 1992, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his 1842 exploits in the Marquesas Islands, I reenacted Melville’s jumping ship and living at Taipivai, in Nuku Hiva, which was the basis of his first novel, that runaway bestseller Typee. Nevertheless, although I’ve seen Peter Ustinov’s fine 1962 black and white film version of Billy Budd, with Terence Stamp in the title role, Robert Ryan as the sadistic Claggart, Ustinov as Captain Vere and a pre-The Man From U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum as a gunnery officer, with its daunting theme of innocence thwarted by evil, the story hits too close to home and I can’t bring myself to read it. But I’m very glad I went to see the operatic version of Billy Budd and hope someday to see the Moby Dick opera, too.

Now here’s an idea I offer up to any composers and lyricists out there in opera-land: Another Melville classic that would be absolutely ideal for the opera hall is Typee and dare I say Liam Bonner would be perfect as young Herman, when he lived life among the cannibals and romanced the fair Fayaway. Remember folks -- you read it here first!

Ed Rampell

Billy Budd is being performed Sundays March 2 and March 16 at 2:00 p.m. and March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampellco-authored "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).