Tag Archives: Philip Skinner

San Francisco Opera: Terrific & Tragic Billy Budd

The San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Billy Budd ended with the matinee, Sunday, September 22, and still the music and drama play in my mind. The voices: absolutely first rate. The acting, set, costuming, direction, orchestra and conductor: all superb. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, captured Britten’s oceanic sound as well as the delicacy of the piccolo solo as Billy waits for execution. Readers, you may have missed this production of Billy Budd, but I hope this report encourages you to attend the opera when and where you have the opportunity. The excellence of this production promises greatness in the rest of SFO’s season.

John Chest, American baritone, portrayed Billy Budd. Eager, confident, honest, with a voice that possessed Billy’s “handsomeness, beauty, goodness” and pulled the listener into his heart while breaking the heart of the listener.

Benjamin Britten, major 20th century English composer, wrote the music set to a libretto by the great English author, E. M. Forster(Passage to India, Room with a View, Howard’s End) and Eric Crozier, a librettist and theater producer who directed Peter Grimes, Britten’s first opera, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells theater, in London. He also wrote the libretto for Albert Herring, another Britten opera. Billy Budd is based on an unfinished novella by Herman Melville. His manuscript was discovered one hundred years ago; this year is the two hundredth anniversary of Melville’s birth, in 1819. Now considered one of the central, most significant American authors, even Melville’s Moby Dick, disappeared soon after publication. He had critical and financial success with his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, but, after his later works were ignored, gave up writing novels, tried poetry, and then, in 1888, began Billy Budd. Melville passed away, in 1891.

Benjamin Britten (Nov. 1913-Dec. 1976)

Both Britten and Melville had a close relation to the sea. Britten was born in Lowescroft, a fishing port on England’s east coast. Melville actually was a sailor on whaling ships and in the Navy. His travels took him around the world. He had first hand knowledge of the closed  community on board ship and knew about the English tradition of “impressing” ordinary folks, kidnapping men and boys, to be in the Royal Navy. Britten’s music for Billy Budd captures the surging sound and rhythm of the ocean. The opera does not try to follow the novella exactly. Forster uses the characters, setting and part of the story line as a way to jump into some themes which Melville did not develop. These include the spiritual resolution offered in song by Billy and by Captain Vere. Melville did not appear to have a strong focus on religion or a specifically Christian understanding of death. Also, in the opera, there seems to be more awareness of what contemporary music writers refer to as “homo-erotic” sensuality. Having spent six months or more at a time on ships, Melville would know about relationships, but to the extent it appears in Billy Budd or Moby Dick it is more a reflection of reality than a theme.

American tenor William Burden portrayed Captain Vere with straightforward nobiity. His voice projected clarity, balance, humanity; it is a voice one could hear with pleasure for a long voyage.

The opera opens with Captain Vere, now old, beginning the story of what happened on his ship, HMS Indomitable, in 1797. In Michael Grandage’s brilliant production, the audience is enveloped in the ship. Built on the stage in a horseshoe shape opened toward the orchestra and house, the set shows the decks of the ship, the men/SF Opera Chorus kneeling on the deck/floor continually to scrape the salt off the ship. The production fit the opera ideally; I can only imagine it now with this set and direction. It also worked so well that the violence –flogging the Novice and hanging Billy –happened offstage as in classic Greek drama. The atmosphere is close; there is nowhere to go. There are no families, no pub, no market. The common sailor’s life is dictated by work enforced by cruelty. Three new sailors are brought aboard. They have been impressed and taken from the ship ironically named the Rights o’ Man. Claggart, the master-at-arms, uses the name of the ship as his first attack on the new sailor. Billy calls out farewell to friends and to the ship giving Claggart the opportunity to call Billy a revolutionary who must be watched.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn portrayed Claggart. He embodied the evil of the character. His powerful voice could command, insinuate, strike like a snake. 

From his first appearance on the Indomitable, Billy, has “handsomeness, beauty and goodness.” When he is under pressure, he stammers. He is liked and even admired by the men and hated by Claggart. The hatred has no special reason. It is total hate like Iago’s for Othello, a man who is better than he in so many ways. The audience feels apprehension that something terrible will happen and waits in suspense to know how it will unfold. Claggart preys on the weak Novice who was brutally flogged. He threatens the Novice with more violence if he does not cooperate in setting up Billy. At first, the Novice refuses because Billy is kind and good, but fear defeats him. This cast of seventy-five artists, forty-four of them from the SF Opera Chorus, is astoundingly good. Each projects a character, and all create a true crew. There are moments that lighten the tension. For example, in Act I, scene 3, the crew gathers to sing a late 18th century version of Rap, with each man’s rhyming verses entertaining the crowd. Billy offers to get Dansker tobacco. American bass-baritone, Philip Skinner, sings Dansker with a great, satisfying voice appropriate for a brave, true friend. Billy’s tobacco has been taken from his kit. He fights with Squeak who was set by Claggart to make trouble for Billy. American tenor, Matthew O’Neill as Squeak with presence and just the right voice creates the character willing to betray Billy who is then betrayed himself. The men are eager to attack the “Frenchies,” but fog and still winds keep them from a battle.

The crew of HMS Indomitable ready to attack the French.

Claggart (Van Horn) presses his case with Vere (Burden).

Then Claggart tells Vere that Billy is fomenting mutiny and has gold coins to bribe the crew. Given a chance to defend himself, Billy stammers. In frustration he strikes Claggart who falls dead. Vere calls three officers to serve as a court-martial. They can believe Billy, but Billy struck and killed an officer. By the Laws of War, he must die. The three officers are horrified by what they have done and ask Vere, the only witness, to stop the process, but Vere says he cannot.

Billy taken away for execution.

Surely one of the  most chilling, touching and beautiful songs in the opera is Billy’s solo while he waits to be executed. He is frightened and does not want to die. He imagines himself under the water, gone. Then, he imagines that he will be anchored by, what? Is it faith? Is it heaven? He sings, “I’m strong and I know it, and that’s enough.” He sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far–shining sail, and I’m content.” Vere reappears looking back through time and repeats Billy’s words about that sail. Vere also says he could have stopped it. And there’s the eye-opening, hair raising moment. He had said there was nothing he could do. He had to follow the letter of the law although he knew he was killing an angel. Now, he says, both that he could have done something and that he is “content.” In the battle between good and evil, Claggart won, but he only won by being killed. The optimism that the Goodness of the Good will find a safe harbor and that the humane regret of Captain Vere will somehow reach a contented resolution does not seem very Melville-like. The ambiguity of human life does, though. Imperfect and unfinished, just like the novella Billy Budd, that is what we are. Perhaps wisdom is to decide to be content. Perhaps.

Photo of John Chest by Andrey Stoycher; Billy taken for execution, Claggart with Vere, whole crew by Cory Weaver, courtesy the San Francisco Opera. Future operas of SFO’s season: The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 11-Nov. 1, Manon Lescaut, Nov. 8-26, Hansel & Gretel, Nov. 15-Dec. 7.

 

Boris Godunov: San Francisco Symphony Triumphs

The San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of Boris Godunov, Modest Mussorgsky’s magnificent opera, was sensational. On Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ long list of semi-staged productions, this one may be the best, which is saying a lot. Mussorgsky, composer and librettist, based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s play, written, in 1827. The Russian censors kept the play off the stage until 1866 portrayals of a czar were not allowed. Mussorgsky had to obtain a special license for his opera which he finished it in 1869.  If the plot seems tangled it’s because the historical subject, set in 1598-1605, is impossible to clarify.

. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

When Ivan the Terrible died, his son, Fyodor, became Czar. He was truly too good to rule and allowed his brother-in-law and head minister, Boris Gudonov, to take charge. Boris was not troubled by ethics. Fyodor’s half-brother and true heir, Dmitri, died in mysterious circumstances. Ironically, the Hedgehogs saw the opera on Father’s Day. Pushkin decided Boris was the murderer. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. Think of Shakespeare blaming it all on Richard III and the evidence that even if he was a rotten guy, he wasn’t the murderer of the little princes in the Tower. The power of a good story always, shall we say, trumps the facts. In the opera, Boris is tortured by guilt, but it is not plainly revealed for what. He knows that the public blames him for bad crops, bad weather, and the death of Dmitri. He sings that he poisoned his family, but he says that just after complaining that the public blames him for everything. So, the comment may be part of the list of things he didn’t do. Mussorgsky does not give anything away. In fact, there are no facts except that everyone is plotting, lying, and when possible, killing. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, representing the long suffering Russian people, suffers and, short of bread, devours what ever rumors come to it, even when they contradict the last set of rumors they devoured. This opera is about the evils of Fake News.

Stanislav Trofimov sang the role of Boris Godunov

The cast was impressive both for brilliant voices and for portrayals of the rascally, deceiving, greedy for power characters. Mr. Trofimov’s every movement and expression revealed Boris’ deep emotions. What a voice! His powerful bass was resilient at every note. He was fearful for himself, his son and daughter and, he was right to be. Soon after Boris’ death, strangers appear to capture the czar’s heirs. The daughter has a blindfold over her face and is manhandled off the stage. They are not playing pin the tail on the donkey. Yvegeny Akimov played Prince Shuisky. Isn’t it great to have a tenor be a bad guy? He was a manipulative liar, like Iago in Othello, and like Charles Boyer in the movie Gaslight, he worked to drive Boris mad. He appeared to support Boris, but flipped allegiances quickly. Shuisky belonged to no side except his side. His strong, flexible voice fascinated the audience. When the Czar and Shuisky physically assault each other, it is over for the Russians.

Yevgeny Akimov portrayed Prince Shuisky

They were all bad guys, as it turns out, but as singers they were over the top fantastic. It is a huge cast and more than this writer can fit into a Hedghog entry, though each deserves bouquets. All but two of the male roles were taken by Russian singers. The solemn friar, Pemin, was played by Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev. He seems dedicated to religion and writing Chronicles of his era. It’s good to remember that the historian, especially when he is the only historian, is in the best position to make sure it is his party which wins–in the very long run. It will be his Fake News handed down through centuries, or at least until more people become literate and record their own favorite lies. Sergei Skorokhodov sang the role of Grigory, the Pretender. He first appears as a monk longing for contact with the real world of armies and adventure. He manages to elude those sent to capture him and survives to present himself, all cleaned up, as Dmitri, believed to be dead but now back to claim his throne. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov sang Andrei Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma (Russia’s “parliament” of aristocratic advisors). In history, Shchelkalov was a greatly feared “diplomat;” in the opera, Bogdanov gave him a calming presence. He speaks for Russia itself. Bogdanov’s appearances provide brief feelings of certainty in the midst of chaos. The presence of a Holy Fool extends the sense of Shakespearean theater that courses through Mussorgsky’s libretto. In Shakespeare, the Fool is there to speak the truth, even if in riddles and songs. This being set in Russia in the last years of the 16th and first few of the 17th century, he is Holy. Tenor Stanislav Mostovoy turned this small role into a powerful light in the midst of darkness. The American tenor, Ben Jones, played Missal, and American bass-baritone Philip Skinner was Niktich. Each left his mark embodying the characters with voice and stage presence.

Catherine Cook appeared as the Innkeeper.

There are only a few female roles. Each one was sung by singers who can hold the stage. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan portrayed Boris’ daughter. A delicate woman who lost her fiance to political murder, she is sad and needs the comfort of her Nurse, sung by mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen. Catherine Cook played the Innkeeper with a robust mezzo-soprano voice and a canny way with government guards as well as outlaws. The Czar’s son was a trouser role for mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet. She projected the defiance, fear, and confusion of the young man who was the legitimate heir of the not exactly legitimate Czar.

Left: Wiliam Shakespeare (1564-1616; Right: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

In the Elizabethan world view, the ruler is truly the head of the nation. If the head is lost, ill, displaced by someone who does not belong on the throne, the body of the country will suffer civil wars, famines, plagues, foreign invasions until the rightful ruler is in place. Pushkin admired Shakespeare and, from his vantage point in Russia, would have understood that the metaphor played out in horrible chaos in the real world. If the head of the nation has no interest in the health of the people, their works, the country’s forests and rivers, it is also a case of the head being sick and infecting the body of the country. Nothing will be right until that one is removed. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and a long series of successors had to be removed. It’s the trick of great art: it lets one experience chaos, the dissolution of civilization, while sitting safely in a chair believing it couldn’t happen here.