Review: “Billy Budd” at LA Opera
Onto the Edge of Your Seat
LA Opera’s Billy Budd
by Leticia Marie Sanchez
Three standing ovations. The opening night of Billy Budd provoked rousing enthusiasm from the crowd. When even the villain elicits fanatical cheers, you know that something has gone incredibly right.
Liam Bonner as Billy Budd. (Photo: Robert Millard)
Firstly, the set. The formidable chorus of sailors resembles a powerful tableau vivant. Producer Francesca Zambella stipulated that the set not include a ship, and yet the oceanic allusions, through Alison Chitty’s simple yet evocative bold blue motif correspond with the subtle, nuanced undercurrents in Benjamin Britten‘s score.
It is no secret that James Conlon has championed the twentieth- century British composer by leading the centennial tribute, Britten 100/LA. Conlon’s deep love for the music was evident on Billy Budd’s opening night when the orchestra was in superlative form, clearly articulating the opera’s haunting musical themes, from the plaintive “heave ho” of weary sailors which recapitulated into the ominous mutiny motive.
In addition to the vivid set and Conlon’s passionate conducting, the opera was well cast on all counts. As Billy Budd, the charming baritone Liam Bonner exuded innocent exuberance and elicited pathos from the audience. In one pivotal scene, Budd is falsely accused of a crime and begins stammering. The woman sitting in front of me audibly gasped “Oh no,” squirming in her seat with each successive stammer, pained to watch the good-natured Billy suffer. In contrast to the pure, uncorrupted Billy is nefarious villain John Claggart, whose role was sung by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley; the richness of Grimsley’s voice conveyed the inner turbulence of his character. Singing “There I established an order such as reigns in Hell,” he genuflected on the stage in his own devilishly twisted form of prayer.
Equally notable on opening night was tenor Richard Croft in the role of Captain Vere.
Richard Croft as Captain Vere (Photo: Robert Millard)
Croft’s dulcet voice changed in accord with the shades of his character, becoming strained and heavy during the final scene, an emotional outpour of bitterness and guilt. As he made his final confession, the audience sat on the edge of their seats. Inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, you could heard a pin drop. And then, multiple standing ovations for a moving production that riveted the audience from beginning to end.