A warship in the 18th-century British navy may not be a typical operatic locale, but this is precisely where Benjamin Britten set his 1951 opera “Billy Budd.” The work swells with intense human drama and resounding choruses, driven by a score as tumultuous as the churning sea. This weekend, a gritty production of Britten’s modern epic opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after acclaimed performances at the British Glyndebourne Festival in 2010 and 2013. It is a presentation that promises to impress.
Based on a novella by Herman Melville, the opera centers on the bright-eyed title character who is pressed into service aboard the fictional HMS Indomitable.
During his time at sea, Billy develops strong friendships with his fellow crewmen, but also faces the unrelenting jealousy of the master-at-arms, John Claggart. The result is a compelling look at just decision-making within a fog of moral ambiguity.
“What’s going on in the opera is clearly not only about this one incident that supposedly took placed in 1797,” William Berger, opera writer and commentator for weeknight broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, said about the opera’s balance of both realism and allegory. “It’s about the entire cosmic struggle of good and evil.”
For Berger, Billy is the perfect figure to engage in this conflict because he “stands for innocence and pure goodness.”
In casting baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Budd, revival director Ian Rutherford sees a natural fit for Billy’s relentless optimism. Not only does Imbrailo bring “openness, generosity, and warmth of spirit,” Rutherford said, but “his voice is completely tailored to the role.”
When director Michael Grandage brought this maritime tale to the stage in 2010, he and his team also hoped to recreate the circumstances of a life at sea. In a statement, Grandage described this world as “claustrophobic, violent, and capricious,” and said that he hoped “to help the audience understand the hideous circumstances in which all of these people lived.”
This goal clearly motivated the entire staging process. In fact, before rehearsals of the production, members of the cast and production team toured Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. In a joint interview with Spectator and WKCR, Rutherford emphasized that this trip offered the team great insight.
Noting the ship’s compact living spaces, he said that “lots of people would have been crouched down … and we brought that into the staging.” Even specialized nautical references indicated in the libretto are faithfully represented—theater riggers were brought in to teach the chorus proper knot-tying.
Above all, the music of “Billy Budd” has the power to continually mesmerize its audience. In composing an opera set entirely aboard a ship, Britten was forced to evoke a range of musical colors from a reduced palette of voices: an entirely male cast—something Berger said is “quite unusual to hear.”
“What Britten did really successfully was find different tones within the male voice ... from boys to low basses,” he said. “You should be able to hear a tremendous diversity of sound.”
“You can’t help but get caught up in it!” Berger said. “The issues are right there. There’s nothing that gets in the way of an intelligent modern person appreciating what the issues are,” Berger said.
Even more so, he comments that it’s an ideal choice for newcomers to the art form. “It is a good introduction to opera,” he said, “because it shows you in a smart way how music can tell the story words can’t.”
“Billy Budd” runs at BAM from Feb. 7 through Feb. 13. Tickets start at $30. More information can be found online at www.bam.org.