Sunday, May 13, 2007

The unspeakable

It sounds odd, but I can focus more in Billy Budd than Mozart’s Magic Flute. Partly, I guess, is that I got a better seat this time, libretto in English also helped. But in essence, it was the story that made the difference. Although some scholars may have spent years studying in the social context in Magic Flute, its naivety and idealism are too stale from my point of view. But Billy Budd is profound and thought-provoking even though the framework of the story could be just as simple as Magic Flute.

Benjamin Britten and Foster brought Melville’s story into a metaphor of tragedy of suppressed homosexuality. Through other’s description, Billy is lauded as a phenomenon, beauty or mystery. His physical charming is definitely obvious: Hermann Melville described his body like a Greek statue while in the opera Claggart labeled him as one out of a thousand. (However Billy, in fact, is not perfect as Captain Vere pointed out. His speech impediment works both as the leading factor to swerve the story direction and as the symbolic social meaning that beauty is fragile and undefendable under hostile circumstances. )

Foster’s libretto draws heavy attention to both Claggart and Captain Vere: their internal struggles and their consequences. The essence of the story lies in the questions why they should deliberate the death of an innocent person toward whom both have showed their affections. In the long solo aria, Claggart fluctuates between anger and envy, and finally outburst his desire of control and destroy. On the surface, the target is Billy; but if one examines his behavior throughout the story, the unspoken homosexuality is branded in detail: His envy roots not in Billy, but in Billy’s unanimous popularity in the crew or in other words Billy's attachment to the public which he does not has the luxury to share with; his anger stems from his appreciation of the youth and charming, which strongly endangers his self image as a ship policeman. He dare not let his weakness out, and his iron character does not allow it. Vere is another matter. He looks at Billy with a fatherly affection, yet he too wants to keep the balance between sternness and amicability in his management style. He feels obliged to resort to the marine court to state authority and fairness. But when the court rules against Billy, he knows his own trial comes afterwards: He finally favors the court decision instead of his consciousness because his egoism has conquered his sentimentality; he too has to suppress the germ of his admiration of male perfection.

Britten’s music does not give many imminently recognizable arias as in Mozart’s operas, (partly due to the only availability of male voices) but the orchestra accompanies the storyline with fluctuating waves: turning dark in treachery and mind struggling, but light up when the youth shines on the stage. Overall, the music is provocative and impelling, a reminiscent of Richard Wagner, and projecting a sense of uncontrollability of fate and sea and the inevitability of tragic ending. The chorus from all male singers is magnificent, as towering as some in Verdi’s.

Grimsley’s Claggart is not a simply evil person. His voice, metallic and penetrating in low register, matched the character’s cruelty and darkness. Although the opera does not give him much room to fully develop the changes in his attitude toward Billy, he managed to make it convincing from the aria filled with internal-searching, self-doubt, fired anger and a slight sense of resignation.

Leggate’a acting as Vere is solid too. He ventured further to reach the edge of the stage and opened his arms toward the audience in the last scene, with his voice instilled with regret, humane and nobility.

David Adam Moore replaced Nathan Gunn in the last minute to rescue the show. It was extremely lucky that the opera could find a baritone qualifying for the role: young, physically fit, gorgeous looking and great voice. (David has taken the same role in the same production before.) At the only beautiful aria (“Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray”), he sang with heart-melting warmth and softness.

Francesca Zambello’s production excelled in every perspective. Even though the limited space only allowed a corner of the deck shown on the stage, she created such ambiance that the audience could feel vividly the motion of the ship. The lighting, mostly blue, occasionally warm yellow for ordinary crew members and the final image of Billy, brought psychological effects into the characters. In the last, the veil shadowed everything of the ship except the dangling body of Billy in a romance light, it was so striking and moving that I felt exhausted and uplifted at the same times.

In Billy Budd, between Claggart and Vere, the taboo is mutiny; yet Britten and librettist Foster, as well as the novelist Herman Melville saw the real unspeakable is inhibited sexuality.

1 comment:

Steve said...

What turned me off a whole lot about the Magic Flute was just the way it was marketed. . . Sort of like those banners that say "Let's Get Keyed up" for Rachmaninoff. There is something about marketing the classics as if they are happy meals that kind of doesn't sit so well with me.