Moby-Dick (Chicago Opera Theatre) and Billy Budd (Royal Opera House)

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Ian Dickson Thursday, 23 May 2019
Published in ABR Arts

Given his towering position in the pantheon of American authors, it is surprising that the bicentenary year of the birth of Herman Melville, born on 1 August 1819 in New York, is passing with such little fanfare. However, this reviewer recently managed to catch performances of opera versions of his two most famous creations, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick (2010) and Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster, and Eric Crozier’s Billy Budd (1951). Three of Melville’s works have scored the trifecta of being adapted for theatre, film, and opera – Benito Cereno (1855) is the third – but there appear to be no planned productions of Stephen Douglas Burton’s Benito Cereno or of the earlier version of Moby Dick by the short-lived Italian composer Armando Gentilucci.

Moby-Dick was commissioned for the opening of the Dallas Winspear Opera House in a coproduction with, among others, the State Opera of South Australia, where it arrived in 2011. The Dallas reception was extremely positive.

Performers of Moby-Dick at the opening of the Dallas Winspear Opera House in 2010 (photograph by Karen Almond/Dallas Opera)Performers of Moby-Dick at the opening of the Dallas Winspear Opera House in 2010 (photograph by Karen Almond/Dallas Opera)

One can see why. As a piece of musical theatre, it certainly works. Gene Scheer has filleted Melville’s vast, discursive novel effectively on the whole. He sets the entire opera on the ship the Pequod, the vessel in which the monomaniacal Captain Ahab pursues his nemesis, the white whale Moby-Dick. This gives the opera an apt contrast between the claustrophobic atmosphere on the ship and the vastness of the ocean on which it sails, although, in losing the New Bedford scenes, we miss the wonderful Father Mapple and the comic, erotic scene of Ishmael and Queequeg’s meeting in the bedroom of the local inn. Scheer has said that fifty per cent of the libretto is Melville’s text. For example, Ahab’s entrance scene is an almost exact setting of the Quarter Deck chapter, and Scheer and Heggie have given him an Otello-like introduction with a fortissimo ‘Infinity’ to rival Verdi’s ‘Esultate’. The major change is that the young man who is Melville’s narrator remains nameless throughout the opera, being known only as ‘Greenhorn’. It is only at the very end that he names himself, and the opera ends with what is probably the most famous opening line in literature, ‘Call me Ishmael’.

Heggie’s lushly romantic score has been dismissed by some as 1940s film music. But is that necessarily a criticism? After all, many of those composers were European refugees who had grown up under the influence of late-Romantic composers like Strauss and Zemlinsky, and in Eric Korngold Hollywood had the services of the composer of an opera that is still in the repertory, Die Tote Stadt. The music may not be particularly memorable, but Heggie provides atmospheric sea music, lusty choruses, and some wonderful lyrical moments, the duet in which Greenhorn and Queequeg sing of Queequeg’s island and the trio where they are joined by Pip the cabin boy as Queequeg lies sick being two of them. He provides Ahab with powerful soliloquies and gives Greenhorn, Pip, and Starbuck, the decent if weak first mate, their chance to shine. Above all, unlike so many contemporary composers, Heggie understands the human voice and how to use it in opera.

The original production was so technically flamboyant that there were those who wondered if the opera’s success had more to do with the staging than the piece itself, and it proved so costly to present that after its original showing it was more or less shelved. Utah Opera has now provided a more modest version designed to tour, capably directed by Kristine McIntire and, at the Chicago Opera Theater (★★★★), powerfully conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya.

The richly voiced Aleksey Bogdanov made a strong impression as Starbuck, the moral centre of the piece. His agonising soliloquy over the sleeping body of Ahab – rationalising whether in order to save the crew he was justified in killing the mad old man – made a powerful ending to the first act. Vince Wallace’s Queequeg and Andrew Bidlack’s Greenhorn more than held their own, and Summer Hassan in the pants role of the cabin boy Pip, though visually not wildly convincing as a boy, sang beautifully and was heartbreaking as the bewildered lost soul that the boy becomes. The only weak link in the cast, a major one unfortunately, was Richard Cox’s Ahab. In a role designed for the heldentenor Ben Heppner, Cox strained vocally and simply did not have the personality to inhabit a man who could say, ‘I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.’

Utah Opera’s pared-down production proves that Moby Dick can succeed as a viable work without the bells and whistles of its first production.

A portrait of Herman Melville, done in 1870 by Joseph Oriel Eaton (1829–1875)A portrait of Herman Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, 1870

First performed on 1 December 1951 at the Royal Opera House and now an integral part of the operatic repertory, Billy Budd has nothing to prove although it is surprising that the recent performances at its home base are the first in nineteen years.

The manuscript of Billy Budd, the story of a beautiful, innocent sailor falsely accused of mutiny, who accidentally kills his accuser and is reluctantly sentenced by the ship’s captain to hang, was left unfinished at Melville’s death in 1891. Stored in a bread tin, the manuscript was rediscovered in 1919 and finally published in 1924. From the first, E.M. Forster was an ardent advocate, and, when he and Britten decided to collaborate the choice, after some hesitation, seemed an obvious fit.

Forster was by far the most eminent writer Britten used as a librettist. Although, or perhaps because, he was less pliable than the others, they, with the help of Eric Crozier, produced a libretto that Britten later praised as ‘the finest libretto ever’. They took many more liberties with the original work than have Heggie and Scheer. The most obvious are the resurrection of the Captain of the Indomitable, Edward Fairfax Vere, whom Melville kills off in combat shortly after Billy is hanged; and the placing of him as the protagonist of the piece, who recollects in old age the events that lead to Billy’s execution. Also effective is the way they invent the character, the novice, a tortured frightened boy who becomes the evil Master at Arms, John Claggart’s instrument of destruction.

Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd and Alasdair Elliott as Squeak in Billy Budd (photographed by Catherine Ashmore)Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd and Alasdair Elliott as Squeak in Billy Budd (photographed by Catherine Ashmore)

Deborah Warner’s production (★★★★), previously well received at the Teatro Real, Madrid and the Teatro Dell’ Opera, Rome, scored mixed reviews in its London showing. Visually it was as far from the traditional cross section of a sailing vessel as it could get. The set was strung with myriad ropes, which aptly suggested both rigging and prison bars, and raised and lowered platforms that emphasised the airy lightness of the upper-deck cabins in contrast to the dark, crowded lower decks. These worked well. Less successful were the channels of water that crossed the stage into which members of the cast occasionally splashed.

The costumes were vaguely twentieth century. It was obvious that Warner was going for the archetypical aspects of the plot rather than the historical. She was certainly cavalier about naval customs, allowing Vere to greet his senior officers in a bathrobe, and Billy, a very junior foretopman, to slump into a chair in the Captain’s presence while his senior was standing.

The scene in which Vere informs Billy of his fate is left obscured in the novella. Melville tells us: ‘There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the observer.’ Melville’s biographer, Andrew Delbanco, adds: ‘Vere enters the cabin not as a father confessor but as a confessing father seeking absolution from his son. To intrude would be to violate a private moment … and so we are required to wait outside.’ Britten brilliantly conveys this moment with a series of simple chords. But the openness of Michael Levine’s set means that we have to see the two wandering around rather aimlessly until Billy finally touches the captain’s head in what we presume to be a blessing.

Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd Toby Spence as Captain Edward (photographed by Catherine Ashmore)Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd Toby Spence as Captain Edward in Billy Budd (photographed by Catherine Ashmore)

The cast, with one exception, were superb. Unfortunately, as with Moby-Dick, the exception was the protagonist. Toby Spence is a marvellous singer and actor but was seriously miscast here. As Vere, whom Melville describes as ‘old enough to be Billy’s father’, he looked about the same age as the young sailor, and vocally his voice is a bit light for the role. Brindley Sherratt, on the other hand, was a most effective Claggart, giving him a creepy stillness through which his sadism occasionally appears. His delivery of Claggart’s great monologue built to a shattering climax. The smaller roles were all well cast, with standouts being Clive Bailey’s weathered Dansker and Sam Furness’s put-upon novice. The chorus and the orchestra were in superb form.

But it was the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Budd who made the evening truly special. Budd was his breakout role at Glyndebourne in 2010 and he has pretty much owned it ever since. Though somewhat slight of figure for the robust sailor, he radiates the innocent, eager goodness of the doomed boy. His beautifully placed baritone carried through the house, even when singing quietly. In the great scene before his hanging, which is in part a setting of the poem Billy in the Darbies with which Melville ends the story, he was unforgettable. As he sang to a hushed, attentive house, this reviewer remembered Forster’s description of the novella. Billy Budd ‘reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are indistinguishable from glory’.


Moby-Dick was presented by the Chicago Opera Theatre, and Billy Budd by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Performances attended: April 25 and May 10, respectively.

Published in ABR Arts
Ian Dickson

Ian Dickson

Ian Dickson has degrees in drama from Yale and the University of New South Wales, and is the co-author of the musical Better Known As Bee.

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