A mighty cast sailed through “Billy Budd,” an all-male seafaring tale of good vs. evil with psychosexual undercurrents that opened Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House.
Presented by San Francisco Opera for the first time in 12 years, Michael Grandage’s new production of the Benjamin Britten opera based on the unfinished Herman Melville novella, with a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, was riveting.
Tenor William Burden was a compellingly pitiable Capt. Vere, the commander of the HMS Indomitable, a British ship searching for French foes during the Napoleonic wars, its toiling sailors having been pressed into service. (Christopher Oram’s set, a cross-section of the three-deck vessel, effectively conveyed the cramped quarters.)
In the prologue, Vere is an old man, trumpeting his career strengths, yet lamenting a weakness that had tragic consequences. In the epilogue — the production is a flashback — Burden’s Vere has the piercing, plangent voice of a man who had the power to save Billy Budd — for whom he may have had hidden desire — from his ultimate execution, but chose not to.
Striking a balance between boldness and vulnerability, easy-on-the-eyes baritone John Chest made a splendid impression in his SFO debut as Billy Budd, who arrives, Messiah-like, and quickly gains the admiration of his fellow hands on deck, who have been beaten down by the system and who see in “Baby” Billy their innocence that has been lost.
With warmth and smooth resonance, Chest’s Billy would make anyone fall for him; he was especially moving in his Act 2 final monologue.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn unleashed a tour-de-force as John Claggart, the scheming, sadistic master-at-arms, also possibly harboring a secret lust for Billy. With a booming voice and dark aura, Van Horn mercilessly intimidated and abused the seamen.
He also was gripping in his Act 2 monologue, in which he suggests a suppressed longing that may have upwelled due to Billy’s presence and, possibly to quash it, declares his determination to frame him for mutiny.
Other standouts included bass-baritones Philip Horst as Mr. Redburn, Wayne Tigges as Mr. Flint and Christian Pursell as Mr. Ratcliffe, the officers who preside over Billy’s court-martial; bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Dansker, who steps in as a surrogate father figure for the foundling Billy; and tenor Brenton Ryan as the Novice, the deckhand who is brutally flogged and whom Claggart coerces to set up Billy for a fall.
Conductor Lawrence Renes piloted the orchestra with precision and poise, while Ian Robertson’s opera chorus was magnificent, singing with resounding intensity throughout.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Sept. 17 and Sept. 20; 2 p.m. Sept. 15 and Sept. 22
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com