The Washington National Opera's staging of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is one of those productions, like "Die Walkure" in 2003 or "Der Rosenkavalier" in 1995, that mark a new and spectacular advance for the troupe, raising the standards by which it must be judged in the future. For the moment at least, we have a great opera company in our midst.
Everything worked. The Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus fulfilled their duties immaculately and exuberantly under the sweeping, authoritative direction of Richard Hickox (indeed, I've never heard the choral music sung with such eager passion). Francesca Zambello's stage direction was appropriately austere -- dark and muted and curiously timeless, in sympathy with both the story and the score. If it was a little heavy-handed to have the innocent, soon-to-be-betrayed Billy recline, arms akimbo, on the ship mast (can you say "crucifixion," boys and girls?), Zambello's decision to transform Capt. Vere into a wracked, ruined Methuselah just as he permits Billy to meet the fate he knows is unjust was apt and psychologically penetrating. After all, it is not only our years but our actions that break us down.
E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier adapted the libretto from "Billy Budd, Foretopman," Herman Melville's valedictory, a novella discovered and published long after the author's death. Told through the reflections of an old man, it is a story within a story, a collection of enigmatic epiphanies shrouded in philosophic mist and shot through (in the opera, anyway) with an omnipresent undercurrent of homoeroticism. (Some of this becomes downright campy: Billy is commonly referred to as "Baby" and "Beauty," although, mercifully, the sailors refrain from calling each other "Miss Thing.")
Dwayne Croft made a brilliant Billy, singing with clarity, power, a lustrous tone and unfailing dramatic intelligence: The long final monologue afforded some of the finest sustained vocalizing ever heard in this house. If Samuel Ramey can no longer toss off the sinuous, black-velvet bass lines he could 10 years ago, he remains a singing actor of rare distinction, and his bleak, rageful Claggart was malevolence personified, a walking storm cloud. Robin Leggate infused the role of Vere with dignity and anguish; his singing had both sureness and grace, and some tight moments in the upper register only heightened his sense of frightened vulnerability. John McVeigh sang sweetly and urgently as the Novice; Steven Cole made us hate the treacherous, aptly named Squeak; while Conal Coad brought a welling and indelible sadness to the role of Dansker.
Ever since I first saw "Billy Budd," in the famous Metropolitan Opera production almost 30 years ago, I have noted that it seems to be a work to which one takes strongly or not at all. At the close of this performance, as at every other one I've attended, the audience was divided between those stampeding toward the exits and those who remained, stunned, quietly gazing at the empty stage.
"Billy Budd" is, therefore, a risky work for the Washington National Opera to take on, for many spectators will always find it more admirable than likable. A recording makes for stupefyingly dull listening: The all-male voices create a tumbrel sameness that grows wearisome over the opera's 21/2 hours, and there is a gray quality in the score that can't all be explained away as deliberate musical "seascape." As such, it is hard to prepare for "Billy Budd," for the music is only part of it.
Moreover, the steadfastly iconic quality of the characters (Billy is "good," Claggart is "evil," and so on) will likely exasperate those who attend the opera looking for rich, knowing reflections of the human condition. Put simply, the plot is unbelievable: Not Billy, not Claggart, not even Vere is a recognizable member of our species. In this final work, Melville took allegory to such an exalted level that one sometimes has the sense that his story has been dictated by newly arrived Martians, who have had time to observe a few of our habits but know nothing of our motivations. Or to put it another way: Even the wildest of Wagner's imprecating Gods and fiery Valkyries behave more like the people down the block than do any of the characters on HMS Indomitable.
Still, when you combine the music and drama as skillfully as the Washington National Opera has done in this production, the results are something pretty special. It is always good to see this company taking a risk -- and this time around it has paid off spectacularly.
Billy Budd, sung in English with English supertitles, will be repeated tomorrow, Saturday and next Monday, as well as Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.