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A stunner at San Francisco Opera is Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,’’ a parable of good versus evil based on the novella by Herman Melville. The opera opened last weekend.
Innocent young Brit Billy goes to sea to fight the French in a 19th-century warship. There he is harassed by, and accused of treason by a malevolent ship’s officer named Claggart, whom he accidentally kills. Capitan Vere, the ship’s commander, must decide on Billy’s fate: freedom or execution by hanging.
Michael Grandage’s production, first performed at Glyndebourne in 2010 and later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday, serves this dark work well.
Christopher Oram’s set, a three-tier Man-Of-War, zeroes in powerfully on the theatrics of the work and allows the characters physical space to flesh out through music of unrelenting beauty. The immense skeletal ship, in appearance something like Melville’s fabled whale, addresses the rough nature of the crew and sets up the hierarchy topped by good-hearted Captain Vere, without sacrificing plot complexities.
Billy is the object of passionate feelings; he is young and handsome, and as someone has suggested on shipboard, a male society assigns femininity to certain individuals.
Melville downplayed the issue of homoeroticism; librettists E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier insisted on it, and that makes for some cloudiness in the writing.
The balance is in the music, the radiant music of the ship’s crew, the roiling sea, the mustering chorus, “O heave away,” the solemn interludes, and conductor Laurence Renes drew a performance of unleashed beauty from the pit.
“Billy Budd’’ has an excellent cast: baritone John Chest, in his SFO debut, sings the title role vividly, especially in the final scene where terror overrules his sweet nature. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a menacing enough Claggart, but somewhat bland when involved with other characters.
Strangely enough, it is the Captain Vere of tenor William Burden that exposes conflicted feelings about the young seaman as he paces the bridge; his ringing, robust tenor expresses feelings of inward turmoil.
Others in the cast are standouts, especially the warm Dansker of Philip Skinner, and Ian Robertson’s chorus stars throughout, giving the performance pointed dramatic focus.
Ian Rutherford’s revival staging is uncluttered — no overt business with lines and ship fittings — the voices supply the action.
“Billy Budd’’ is performed in English; there are five more performances through Sept. 22 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
For more details on performance times, please visit sfopera.com.