“It is not his trial, it is mine, mine. It is I whom the devil awaits.” And so it was in LA Opera’s revival of Britten’s operatic adaptation of Melville’s novella, Billy Budd. The words of Captain Edward Fairfax Vere represent the crux of his dilemma. This Francesca Zambello production has been around for nearly 20 years now, but remains an acute delivery of Britten’s vision. Yet it was the musical qualities of Saturday’s opening night that, while not perfect, were uniformly outstanding enough for celebration.

Richard Croft (Captain Vere) © Robert Millard
Richard Croft (Captain Vere)
© Robert Millard

 As alluded to, the story of Billy Budd centers more on Captain Vere than the title character. The role is a tour de force both dramatically and musically. Veteran tenor Richard Croft portrayed Vere with an amiable authority. This was a Vere whose regard was earned not through militaristic might, but through compassion and wisdom. While not a formidable presence onstage, Croft played Vere with confidence and, more importantly, with palpable awareness. One got the firm sense that Vere felt his world collapsing around him in the second act as he faces Billy in his quarters. The ensuing resignation to his situation aligned perfectly with the Vere of the Prologue and Epilogue. Croft’s steely tenor was lyrical enough to spin Britten’s soaring leaps with a sweet ease. Although he would occasionally find himself constricted at the zenith of his register, his commitment to the performance made for riveting theatre.

Vere’s Foretopman, Billy Budd, was given an oddly detached performance by Liam Bonner in his role debut. While dashing, statuesque, and vocally pleasing, Bonner seemed standoffish as the naive, handsome lad. True, he raced about the stage ably, but he lacked the clear-eyed, earnestness of enthusiastic innocence. Bonner's baritone has a lean, pleasing sound with youthful vigor, but was undistinguished in an otherwise uniformly exceptional cast. His second act aria, “Look, through the port comes the moonshine astray” was serenely sung and his vocal highlight of the evening as it should have been.

Greer Grimsley (Claggart) and Liam Bonner (Billy Budd) © Robert MIllard
Greer Grimsley (Claggart) and Liam Bonner (Billy Budd)
© Robert MIllard

Greer Grimsley was a dastardly John Claggart, but kept his portrayal searingly contained. Grimsley knew that economy was his friend in portraying the inherently evil Claggart and thus gave the character's few overtly menacing outbursts terrifying vigor. Grimsley's booming bass lacked some definition at its depths, but he was chilling in his first act aria. Grimsley was potent dramatically and vocally resplendent.

Daniel Sumegi and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Mr. Flint and Mr. Redburn, respectively, were a complementary pair. Lacking the refinement and education of their superior officer, Flint and Redburn were an able pair in unknowingly abetting the conspirational situation that led to Budd's demise. Sumegi's imposing bass-baritone contrasted well with Michaels-Moore's more opaque sound. Patrick Blackwell sang Lieutenant Ratcliffe with a strong voice.

Budd's shipmates were led by the fine James Creswell who sang Dansker with a subtle resignation and compassion. Jonathan Michie was a charismatic, vocally distinguished Donald and Greg Fedderly was a colorful and amusing Red Whiskers. Keith Jameson sang the Novice with a sleek tenor voice and was exceptionally sympathetic. Matthew O'Neill was a dramatically detestable Squeak.

James Conlon led the massive forces with a careful hand on the tiller. His affection for the score was tangible. Conlon's soft touch made the atmospheric, searching beginning unsettling as it should be. Yet he continued to weave and push to make the culmination in the Act II battle scene fierce, bombastic and awe-inspiring. The orchestra responded with authoritative playing; the brass was imposing and strings pliant. The all-male chorus was in fine voice and their dramatic instincts and preparations made for a cohesive effort. The English accents and diction from the entire cast were superb and rendered the supertitles nearly irrelevant.

Officers and crew of the HMS Indomitable © Robert Millard
Officers and crew of the HMS Indomitable
© Robert Millard

Zambello's production, directed by Julia Pevzner, deftly utilized Alison Chitty's clever set. The large, raked platform appeared as the bow of the ship and was able to be raised up in a dramatic sequence for firing on the “Frenchie”. Symbolism was mixed with utility in the brief musical interludes and Zambello's vision, while not sweeping, was efficient, moving and impressively navigated by all involved. Alan Burrett's lighting design was effective and Chitty's costumes were colorful enough to distinguish yet blend well with the rest of the palette.

Towards the conclusion of the second act, a plain noose simply drops from the heights of the stage to begin the fulfillment of Vere's decree, all while the now-aged captain looks on. As a microcosm of the entire performance, it works well. It was a production that solved logistical challenges through pure will and still managed to be effective thanks in large part to the sheer determination and commitment of all involved. This was an engaging, often relentless Billy Budd, and a fitting culmination of the centenary celebration of the genius of Benjamin Britten.