The Metropolitan Opera's premiere production of "Billy Budd" by Benjamin Britten, presented Tuesday night, is fully as spectacular as the "Tannhauser" that opened the season the night before.
The entire opera is set on board the H.M.S. Indomitable. Through brilliant use of the machinery of the great stage, the MET audience is shown four deck levels, including the berth, officers' poop deck, the upper deck, the brig, and the captain's cabin.
One of the great scenes of the opera is the one which the decks are prepared for action against a French man-of-war. Rolls of protective material are placed around the ship, guns on various levels are primed, and, at the height of the action, fired against the fleeing enemy.
But the set, the work of William Dudley in his first Met assignment, and the imaginative lighting of Gil Wechsler are only backdrops against which the deep purposes of Hermann Melville's story, in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, are worked out in company with Britten's music.
"Billy" is a story of a tragic confrontation of absolute evil with seemingly absolute good. John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms, without any provocation except his hatred of that which is good and beautiful, determines to ruin the young, newly impressed seaman, Billy Budd. He does so, not by his bribes and spying, but by falsely accusing Budd to the captain, Edward Fairfax Vere. Budd, a stammerer, is emotionally so upset at the accusation that he cannot speak; instead he strikes Claggart dead with one blow.
Faced with this double crime - the striking of an officer, and murder - Captain Vere, whose whole name suggests good deeds ad truth, can find no way to overturn the required sentence of death, even though he is convinced of Billy's innocence. And so Billy is hanged, calling out "God bless you, Captain Vere" with his last breath.
Britten, whose operas often confront us with the problem of good and evil and innocense, has written "Billy Budd" for an all-male case. Much of the time the music consists of a cushion of orchestral sound over which philosophical discussions of good and evil are carried on. There is little action in the first act, during which the brutal nature of Claggart's hatred of Billy is established.
A great choral outburst, just prior to the battle scene, is magnificent, and the 80 or 90 men who filled the vast ship space made it thrilling. There are several orchestral interludes of contemplative beauty, and solo passages of eloquent lines.
The Met cast is very strong, headed by the original Captain Vere, the indestructible Peter Pears, whose singing at the age of 68 is a lesson in vocal technique. No man has ever before sung a leading role at the Met at that age. Pears, singing approriately in the epilogue "But now I am an old man . . ." would seem irreplaceable. (The original Billy, American baritone Theodor Uppman, was in the audience.)
The title role is sung by Richard Stilwell, an artist of sensitive perceptions. His lyric voice is at its best in the brooding scene in the brig, or what Melville called the "darbies."
Any role as psychologically and emotionally challenging as that of Billy will grow on an artist as he performs it. Stilwell's voice is, for whatever reasons, sounding more slender than it did several years ago. He could afford to sing with more tone, while in his appearance and manner he needs to cultivate still more than the vision of completely unsophisticated goodness.
His opposite, Claggart, is strongly sung by James Morris, but he should drop the veil of suavity that keeps him a bit cool. This is a man of total villainy, and there can be no slight touch of relaxation in the part if it is to convince us.
Conductor Raymond Leppart made a very strong impression in his debut at the Met, leading the subtle work with unbroken power. Everyone in the large cast was ideal in his role. The special honors go to the chorus and the set designer.