Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Darkness Understands and Suffers" (On Britten's Billy Budd)

the darkness understands and suffers

by Douglas Messerli


E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier (libretto, after Herman Melville’s book), Benjamin Britten (music) Billy Budd / 1951, the production I saw was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a production by the LAOpera, March 16, 2014, 2:00 p.m.


My companion Howard insists that the first time we heard Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd was either through a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast or through the loan of a recording from our beloved neighbor, Bob Orr (see My Year 2007), but I have no memory of this incident. The first time I recall hearing music from the Britten production was, strangely enough, in the public square of Ghent in Flanders, in front of the great cathedral there, were a group of performers were gathered singing the sometimes meaningless chantey-like songs from the opera (see My Year 2011). When I asked my friend, Tom van de Vorde, what was going on, he told me that they were advertising a production of Billy Budd at the local opera house. Had I been dressed properly and had planned for more than a day to trip to that city, I would have quickly scooped up tickets and attended the event. For years, I’d wanted to see this significant opera.

      Now that I have seen a production, the other afternoon, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where the LA Opera performs, I can claim that it truly is a great work, and this production certainly did it justice, and director James Conlon’s LAOpera orchestra, in this production, truly reached the heights. Our amazement, accordingly, that the house for this last performance was only partially full. As I told Howard as we exited, “Why isn’t this a sell-out performance? Everyone might enjoy this opera!”


      True, Melville’s often metaphoric statement of Goodness and Evil may seem to some as a 19th century conceit. And certain of its symbolic images, Billy’s Christ-like crucifixion and John Claggart’s devilish (in this version, quite similar to Othello’s Iago) machinations may seem to some as clumsily heavy-handed.

      Britten’s lush and beautiful score, moreover, is far more complex than many even more radical operas; except for Billy’s forlorn confrontation of death after he has been convicted of Claggart’s murder, Captain Vere’s arias of tortured memory, and Claggart’s declaration of the destruction of Billy, there are few moments in this work when we are presented with conventional arias or even long passages of musical characterization. And even in some of the passages I noted, Britten’s orchestration seems to move in a direction other than the line of soloists. Billy Budd is a grand chorale work, dependent upon its powerful choruses of sailor chanteys and work-based sufferings—an opera of collaboration instead of individuation.

      Another problem for many opera-goers, although not as obvious in this particular production, is that Britten’s work, despite the composer’s attempts to defuse some of his librettist’s, E. M. Forster’s intentions, is still a work of seething male sexuality, in particular a world of closeted—and sometimes not so closeted—male lust for other males. The very situation of being aboard H. M. Indomitable for its screw is to be squeezed into dark quarters with other sexually pent-up men, all them lonely, oppressed (and in the case of their impressment into service) repressed, even tortured, literally dripping with testosterone and sweat while waiting for action—an attack against the French, a push against each other, or simple bodily release.

     Into this hot-house environment, the beautiful and handsome (a quality by which even Claggart and Vere describe him) Billy Budd (played by the appealing Baritone Liam Bonner) is thrown, recognized almost immediately not only for his good looks but his utter innocence and his goodness. You can almost hear the denizens of the ship slurping their mouths in desire. And within a few moments of the opera, everyone aboard seems to have fallen in love with Billy, describing him in ways that lovers might describe their beloved: Baby Budd, Beauty, and other such appellations. As much as Britten was determined to establish his Billy as a symbol of goodness and faith, Melville’s Billy remains, as in Ustinov’s film,  essentially a corporeal manifestation of what these men are truly seeking: an absolutely tempting and galvanizing male specimen. If Billy represents the foolish innocent of Christ, in this work, no matter how one might temper it—a fact that Ustinov’s film absolutely flaunted through the stunning looks of its male lead (Terence Stamp)—Billy is a sexual object, which the Master-of-Arms (his title itself working as a kind of unintentional pun), Claggart (Greer Grimsley) cannot but perceive. Although, Britten and Forster ultimately attempted to downplay this aspect of the work (and Los Angeles LA Opera director Conlon carefully tiptoed around these issues in his before pre-production talk) most opera-viewers today—in a society radically different today than Britten’s homophobic 1951 British world, wherein homosexuality was still punishable by imprisonment—recognize that Billy Budd is a work never far from a blatant expression of homosexuality, an issue which, even within today’s more tolerant views may lead some opera-goers to feel uncomfortable with it or, at the very least, dissociated from it.

      Although Claggart may be the utter apotheosis of evil, a devil who—as opposed to Genesis  which claims that God “divided the light from the darkness,” suggesting that the darkness cannot know the light, reiterated in the New Testament John I, 1: “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” —sings that “the darkness understands and suffers” the light. If this is surely as close as we can get to Satan, a figure who refuses to be “separated” from what he can have no part of, it is also the desperate cry of a man who, sexually closeted, who cannot possibly have what he might desire. In Billy’s innocence, his goodness, and his beauty, Billy lies outside of Claggart’s reach, while all the others upon the boat take pleasure in his company; and this very fact drives the sadomasochistic officer to attempt to destroy the young new foretopman.    

          Billy, in his role as the high climber of the ropes, is able, almost like an angel (another of his appellations) to fly higher and see farther than his peers, giving him a glorious vision of reality that none of the fellow-sailors—mostly forced to hover on ship board or below—can perceive. In Britten’s vision, unlike Melville’s or even Ustinov’s film, Billy has a kind of Christian view, a vision of a “ship in anchor forever,” an end of the voyage in life that might suggest a peaceful view of heaven. But in Billy’s innocence, Melville never posits a religious viewpoint for Billy nor the idea of a Christian afterlife. Billy is of his time, a man who is joyful just to be alive—again the very antithesis of Claggart—who in his simplicity never aspires to a heavenly vision; his view of the afterlife (as in his before-death admission) is the oozy slime of the sea and the life within it. If he becomes a kind of Christ, it is in the vision of the others, not his own.

      Although mutiny, the mutiny of previous ships such as the Nore and others, is very much behind the kind of hysterical behavior of The Indomitable’s officers, it is, despite their abasement and abuse, not in the sailors’ vocabularies, particularly not in Billy’s comprehension, who only wants to bravely serve the captain, Starry Vere. But it is, ultimately, that hysteria, that fear of the officers—of the British upper class in general—that creates, at least in Britten’s telling of the tale, the very predicaments of which they are most entangled. Neither Melville nor the Ustinov film suggest that any of the sailors conceived of a possible mutiny, but in Britten’s version, after the hanging of Billy, the whole cast heave forward in explicable growls toward the officers as if threatening them in a way the ruling class always foresaw. It is a powerful moment which not only represents possibly mutiny, but the pent-up sexual energy and hate of every man on board, as if Billy’s death has released some vast, howling banshee force of love and hate that had been kept at bay by the man himself. And it is particularly indicative of Vere’s own reiteration that “every man on board knew” we could have made another judgment, to have found Billy innocent of the murder he was fated to enact. Vere knows also that he might have not only served as witness, but could have interceded against the conventional and unfair articles of war which he upheld.

Despite Vere’s own ability to absolve himself from his actions, I think it is difficult, given the British officers’ preoccupations with class, social distinctions, enslavement, xenophobia, and homophobia to easily exonerate Vere and his officers of their behavior. Of course, we must leave the theater, each of us, with our own conclusions. And that is the rub.

      In the end I had to admit, at a dinner at our beloved Taylor’s steak house with Howard after, that although Billy Budd is an opera which anyone might enjoy, many might find its complexities of musical, symbolic, and thematic overlayings as difficult to penetrate. The audience with whom I shared this masterwork, and who had remained after intermission, grandly applauded this exiting production as Howard and I did, sharing the delight of Britten’s provocative masterwork.         


Los Angeles, March 17, 2014

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