Sunday, May 6, 2012

NYC notebooks: “…some stammer in the divine speech…” Billy Budd at the Met

The best place to see the music and hear the drama of the Met’s magnificent John Dexter production of Britten’s Billy Budd is just off-stage in the wings. I owe this privilege to my friend, Met conductor and Opera Roanoke principal guest conductor, Steven White. The impressive battleship, the Indomitable, rises and falls up to four decks from the subterranean depths under the Met’s massive stage to the upper reaches of its high arched proscenium. The singers are almost within arm’s reach and the orchestra sounds as if it is underneath your feet.

E. M. Forster’s and Eric Crozier’s adaptation of Melville’s novella is faithful to the original and is a masterpiece libretto on its own merits. Joseph Campbell reminds us Melville was a survivor of captivity among a tribe of “cannibals on the South Sea Island of Nukahiva.” In Primitive Mythology, Campbell cites “the profundity of the author’s psychological insight,” and credits Melville’s “infallible use of the language of symbol.” The author’s visionary writings set upon the seas remain unsurpassed.

In Billy Budd, Melville juxtaposes twin poles of good and evil, light and dark, pure and corrupt in the figures of the “innocent” sailor, Billy Budd and the “experienced” Master-at-arms John Claggart. Britten’s mentor and frequent collaborator W. H. Auden diagnosed the composer’s personality struggle with the competing forces of “Bourgeois order” and “Bohemian chaos” in a frank letter that undoubtedly contributed to the drifting apart of one of the most fruitful artistic partnerships in the early 20th century. The Apollonian / Dionysian dialectic plays out across Britten’s life and is most apparent in subjects reflecting William Blake’s dichotomy of purity and corruption in the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

While Budd and Claggart are the most obvious symbols of the polarity, in Britten’s opera Captain Vere and Claggart form the most complex dichotomy. I maintain this is why they are the two most intriguing characters of the opera, its central duo.

Written for Britten’s partner and most important collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears, Vere is one of the great roles in not only Britten’s canon, but in all of 20th century opera. He frames the drama with a haunting solo prologue and epilogue. These poignant monologues addressed to the audience are Shakespearean in range and function, and hearken back to Greek drama. Vere is like Ulysses, “lost on the infinite sea.” At the opera’s close he appears like a ghost, recalling the events of “long ago…centuries ago,” as if to reinforce the timelessness of his character and the human condition.

Like Ulysses, Oedipus and Jason, Vere is an enigma. Like Hermann Broch’s Virgil (quoted in a notebook on my Musings page), he is “inescapably held” by human error – his own and that of others. “There is always some flaw in it, some defect… Some stammer in the divine speech, so that the devil still has something to do with every human consignment,” Vere declaims in the prologue. Mythical and Biblical references pervade the drama and resonate between the archetypal characters. Vere’s Apollonian light is reflected in a brief monologue in his study. “Plutarch: the Greeks and the Romans, their troubles and ours are the same. Their virtues be ours, and their courage.” His virtuous aspirations are in direct conflict with Claggart’s destructive desires. Their polarity is announced by Vere himself when he angrily describes Claggart as “a veritable Argus…he has one hundred eyes!” Like another Melville captain, Vere may be tormented, but he is a different sort, an anti-Ahab. He is a compassionate and generous leader who has earned the admiration of his crew. His affectionate nickname reflects both this fact and the artistic bent of his character. “Starry Vere we call him… he cares for us.”

Like every classical hero, Vere is enigmatic and his conflict is played out before us. The pure villain to Vere’s tragically flawed character, Claggart is the embodiment of a corrupt and cruel bully, bent on the downfall of those he secretly envies. He is Iago to Vere’s Othello. As Steven said to me, Iago’s perversion of Cassio’s affection for Desdemona is inverted by Claggart’s coercion of the novice in precipitating Billy’s demise. Iago’s credo in Verdi’s Otello, “I believe in a cruel god,” is mirrored in Claggart’s chilling invective against Budd’s unsuspecting virtue (In a bit of small-world operatic serendipity, Opera Roanoke's Otello, Allan Glassmann, sings the role of Red Whiskers in the Met's Billy Budd).

“Oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness...would that I never encountered you… would that I lived in my world always… in that depravity to which I was born.” Claggart corrupts a Biblical reference, driving the nails into the coffin of his own soul. “But alas, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it and suffers… Having seen you, what choice remains to me? None... I’m doomed to annihilate you… I, John Claggart… have you in my power, and I will destroy you.”

Claggart’s bold statement of name, rank and aim is mirrored not by Billy, but by Vere. “I, Edward Fairfax Vere,” the Captain proclaims in the same uniform recitation as his nemesis. “John Claggart, beware: I am not so easily deceived.”

Unlike Othello, Vere is not deceived. Where the Moor’s passion and unchecked jealousy lead to his downfall, Vere’s passion is too much in check. He is tortured by the conflict between duty and love, between the rational logic of his head and the stirrings of his heart. The homoerotic layers of Melville’s novella and Britten’s opera are an undercurrent surging beneath the surface of the rival officers. This undertow should neither be dismissed nor exaggerated. Like Tarquinius lusting for quietus by destroying Lucretia (the subject of Britten’s second opera), Claggart is drawn to Billy in overtly Freudian terms. Vere’s attraction to the “pearl of great price” is both more apparent and more deeply sublimated. This conflict plays out in the drama and is reflected in the Captain’s haunted fate. “Oh what have I done,” Britten’s tenor laments in characteristically plangent tones. This is the “primal cry” Britten wrote throughout his career. It appears at the end of his Hardy cycle, Winter Words, and it runs like a through-line across the epic War Requiem. It perfumes his intimate anti-war cycle “Who are these children?” and ends with the dying utterance of the quasi-autobiographical artist, Ashenbach in his operatic swansong, Death in Venice.

The parallels between Vere and Thomas Mann’s narrator bear deeper consideration. They both suffer under the Apollo / Dionysus conflict (the polar twins appear in Britten’s last opera). They are torn between discipline and desire, the organizing order of obedience versus the liberating freedom of passion. Auden hit closer to home than was comfortable for the young Britten, and the composer’s choice of operatic subjects lend credibility to the poet’s insight.

Vere chooses the legally expedient path and does not intervene on Billy’s behalf after the latter strikes Claggart dead. This retaliatory gesture can be symbolically read as “self-defense,” since Billy’s stammer prevents him from defending himself against Claggart’s false accusations. Vere discerns his master-at-arm’s prevarication and his sailor’s innocence, yet remains silent behind an implacable “I have said all that I have to say.” The Met's "handsome indeed" Billy Budd is the popular American baritone, Nathan Gunn. Nathan (whose first Papageno was opposite Amy Cofield's first Pamina), speaks perceptively about the pivotal conflict. In response to the inquiry, "Captain Vere has no choice but to condemn him to death - or does he?" Gunn replies (in the Met Playbill and online): "I understand that this story is often read in law school because of this very question. Did Vere have a choice? Absolutely. He made the mistake of thinking that doing nothing would free him of any kind of guilt. He realizes later that inaction has consequences." I think Vere realizes this in the very moment, but is frozen. There is no paralysis like that of fear.

The crux of the allegorical drama hinges on Billy’s Christ-like forgiveness of “Starry Vere,” when he blesses his Captain before his hanging. Vere resembles not so much they “who know not what they do,” but a more self-examining Pontius Pilate. Vere “washes his hands” of the affair during the hastily convened court-martial, but is dogged by regret even as he acknowledges the blessing of a pardon he did not deserve. In psychological terms, Vere “owns” his guilt and can thus attempt to come to terms with it. Recognizing there is always something more to be done on the narrow path of integrity, especially when envy and pride compete for power and corrupt virtue, Vere faces his error. Like Broch’s Virgil, he embraces the enigmatic “fate of the human soul.” The Death of Virgil uncannily mirrors “the old man of the sea" Vere is as he frames Britten’s opera:

but he, behind whom the heavy wings of dread’s portal had closed,
had arrived at the fore-court of reality,
and the unknown stream on which he was being floated onward,
this unperceived element became the source of his knowledge,
being, as it was, the streaming growth of his own soul,
the uncompleted within himself, and unable to be completed,
which for all that developed to a whole
as soon as the self was self-assimilated…

Billy Budd functions like a prism through which the brilliant light of transforming goodness blinds Claggart, stopping him dead. Vere’s conflicted personality is refracted in the prism of Billy’s virtuous beauty. Like art itself, Billy holds the mirror for Vere to glimpse the “unperceived element… uncompleted within himself.” Britten leaves the question tantalizingly open as to whether Vere dies “self-assimilated.” One of the 20th century's greatest musical dramas, Billy Budd is equal to the masterpiece status of its original source. It is grand opera at its best, full of emotional sweep, tragic conflict and archetypal characters singing their human passions as if their life depended upon it. We lose ourselves in the drama as we are carried along by it. We stir with discomfort when we recognize our own corruption in Claggart, our fear in the cowardly novice, our ambivalence in the conflict-torn Captain. We are inspired by Britten and Melville’s vision, their thrilling evocation of life on the “floating bit of earth” that is the Indomitable, “lost on the “infinite sea.” Perhaps most of all, we are moved by their absurd faith in goodness, that always anachronistic idealism that propels our species inexorably onward.

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