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Arts & Entertainment

Review: LA Opera's 'Billy Budd' hard to surpass

Greer Grimsley (top) as John Claggart and Keith Jameson as the Novice.
Greer Grimsley (top) as John Claggart and Keith Jameson as the Novice.
Robert Millard/LA Opera

LA Opera performs Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The opera is based on Herman Melville’s book of the same name, adapted by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, and features baritone Liam Bonner as Billy, tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere, and bass Greer Grimsley as Claggart in a production by Francesca Zambello. James Conlon leads the LA Opera orchestra and chorus.

“Billy Budd” was Herman Melville’s literary time bomb. A parable of guilt and innocence, it wasn’t until long after the great novelist’s death that this story was found unfinished in his archives. But it instantly took its place, alongside “Moby Dick,” as one of his major works.

Perhaps because it is both great and incomplete, people ever since have struggled to make whole Melville’s tale of a near-perfect man destroyed by his own goodness. I first saw it as a live TV play in 1955, when it starred, of all people, a very young William Shatner as Billy.

General Motors Presents "Billy Budd," with William Shatner as Billy (1955)

Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film version got Terence Stamp an Oscar nod in the same role.

(Robert Ryan, Terence Stamp, and Peter Ustinov in "Billy Budd," 1962. Image: Allied Artists.)

But the mightiest version of all is Benjamin Britten’s sprawling 1951 opera, now in the LA Opera’s production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Closing the centennial celebration of Britten’s birth, it is a thorny, difficult, tuneful and magnificent work, stunningly done.

Britten wrote the Hamlet-like key role of Captain Vere for his life companion, tenor Peter Pears.  He’s the commander who is compelled — or is he? — to sentence Billy Budd, the man whom he loves, to death. The story interweaves several topics: individual freedom, the kind the enemy French were then supposedly upholding with their Revolution; Love between men — the perfect, naïve Budd being every other character’s object of desire; and duty, under which Vere feels compelled to execute Budd for the accidental killing of his evil, conniving superior John Claggart. 

That is basically the entire story of  "Billy Budd" — should a higher justice prevail over human law? Ustinov’s movie came down hard on the side of "no." Britten, a life-long pacifist, seems to say "yes." Tenor Richard Croft’s Vere (note the name) ranges over both sides of the question with compelling vocal and dramatic range — but in the end (as we see from his flash-forward introduction), he wishes he had spared Budd. Baritone Liam Bonner, as Budd, well conveys his character’s hunky sex appeal and innocence. But he also craftily demonstrates the flip side of Budd’s innocence — his arrogance. This, along with the speech impediment that makes him unable to defend himself, is his fatal flaw. New to the role, Bonner fills it completely with a singularly gentle and emotive upper register.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart has the difficult part of a complicated but deeply evil man, enthralled by Budd, yet hating him for his own fascination. Grimsley’s very fine, but he also has the advantage of some of the composer’s top orchestral writing. In his great soliloquy, where he wrestles with his love for Budd and defeats it, the composer draws a broad line under Claggart’s vileness with an amazingly creepy contrabassoon passage. Later, when Claggart slanders Budd, a similarly nasty ascending double-bass solo denotes his villainy. Maestro James Conlon’s conducting was magisterial, expressing his deep love for Britten’s music and complete control over his large band and vast cast (well costumed by Alison Chitty). And how the thing builds and builds — to the very moment of tormented silence after the fatal catastrophe. Conlon ends Britten’s first centennial with a performance of his greatest opera that will be hard to surpass.

"Billy Budd," by LA Opera