If you surveyed the most recent 1,000 opera reviews, “testosterone” would not be one of the top hits. Unless you were Googling the Des Moines Metro Opera’s new production of “Billy Budd,” which promises to be the hit of its 45th season. Energized by the transformative performance of Zachary James as the “villain” John Claggart, this story is about much more than the conflict between good and evil. In this production, the central character is not Billy Budd, the tragically flawed hero, or even Starry Vere, the morally ambivalent Captain: here the piece is given meaning by a character too often dismissed as a simplistic representation of brutish evil, the Master at Arms, who represents the damage that is done to the individual in pursuit of social order.
Not Good vs. Evil, But More Profound
The evening began with a prologue: Captain Vere, “Starry” Vere (Roger Honeywell), is an old man in a bathrobe, looking back on a life still haunted by an episode from his time at sea. With waves emanating from the orchestra below and waves being projected onto the screen on stage, he was a man drowning in sorrow. When the projected image changed to the shadow of a man hanging by a noose, a wave of shock swept through the audience, and the evening was underway. By turns broken, defiant, enraged, frail, and vigorous, Mr. Honeywell showed an astonishing array of vocal colors in introducing the character who poses the central moral dilemma of the opera, which is not simply good versus evil, which is no dilemma at all, but good versus good, or even evil versus evil. Billy Budd (Craig Verm) is not goodness personified, nor is he blameless in the events that lead to his death. Melville and the text are very clear that there is no such thing as pure goodness, that the most seemingly perfect creature has flaws.
“Much good has been shown me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech.”
The Star of the Night
Claggart is not evil personified, certainly not as portrayed by the dynamic, explosive, forceful Zachary James. Physically imposing (Broadway’s Lurch in “The Addams Family”), Mr. James took command of the stage as assuredly as any master at arms would control his seamen. A long overcoat and boots accentuated his imposing frame as he strode across the stage with just a few steps, flashing up the stairs in the blink of an eye and then back down again before his men knew it, as he was literally in the face of his own sailors, never mind the newly impressed recruits, from the moment he entered. He broke down the resistance of the first recruit (Steven Sanders) through force of will (and physical threats) and established his dominance before encountering the almost boyish Billy, whose wide eyes and innocence brought him into Claggart’s sights. The homoerotic nature of the story had already been established by the sailors’ response to the presence of the Midshipmen, and with Beauty’s entrance, Claggart’s intense desire for control and order became undone. Mr. James’ intensity was maintained all the way to the bottom of his considerable register, where even words like “honor” seemed threatening when delivered with such powerful ferocity and resonance. Act I came to a climax not with a joyful chorus of sailors but with Mr. James alone on stage, collapsing to his knees as he concludes he must destroy Billy to save himself. I am not exaggerating when I say that “Oh, beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness” was the most electrifying five minutes I have ever spent in the theater. I’ve seen it done as a showpiece aria, but as rendered by Mr. James, in the context of a powerful production like this one, it was a transformational moment. His anguish, his rage, his sorrow, were all inwardly focused: no striding about the stage, no “tenor claw,” no chewing of scenery; everything was done with his voice as his body collapsed before us. His rendition was at once deeply personal and overwhelming explosive. I walked out at intermission still dizzy with tears in my eyes.
A New Perspective on A Masterpiece
Mr. James continued to alter my understanding of Billy Budd with his powerful acting in Act II. While the battle with the French raged around him, the stage a swirling vortex of energy as the men worked together furiously in their common cause, Mr. James stood stock still center stage doing a slow meltdown. Just when you would think a man of action like him would be at his finest, he became frozen, paralyzed with anguish. Was it at the disorder and fog of war that upset his fine sense of control? Was it the threat of losing his precious men to battle? Claggart’s response to the battle changed my whole perspective on the piece. The true villain here is the state: the maker of war, the enforcer of codes of moral behavior. It has warped Claggart, perverted his nature, shaped his destiny, and compelled him to put order (the needs of the state) above personal liberty (his own needs). And so he accuses Billy of the most heinous act against the state – mutiny – eliminating the threat to his orderly universe so that he can live with himself.
The state, through its officers, then judge Billy, who, unable to stammer out a response to Claggart’s charge, killed him with a single blow. Despite believing Billy innocent of treason, they see no way to avoid punishing him for the death of his superior officer. They appeal to Capt. Vere, who by abstaining from granting clemency, stains his hands for eternity. He may claim, in the epilogue, to have achieved peace and salvation through Billy’s forgiveness, but the music Britten provides, and his anguished cries of “What have I done?” say otherwise. Like Claggart, he devoted his life to king and country but paid a terrible price.
Billy Budd runs at the Blank Performing Arts Center through July 14th.