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Houston’s Britten voyage opens with ‘Billy Budd’


by Olin Chism 28 Apr 2008

The Houston Grand Opera’s six-year tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten is off to a gripping start. Billy Budd, which opened this past weekend at the Wortham Theater Center, sustained a dramatic impact that was reflected in the audience’s hushed intensity on Sunday afternoon. Prolonged applause at the end confirmed that reading of the hall’s […]

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The Houston Grand Opera’s six-year tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten is off to a gripping start. Billy Budd, which opened this past weekend at the Wortham Theater Center, sustained a dramatic impact that was reflected in the audience’s hushed intensity on Sunday afternoon. Prolonged applause at the end confirmed that reading of the hall’s atmosphere.

The opera focuses on three characters: Billy Budd, a naive young seaman who tries his best to do his duty; John Claggart, a malignant master-at-arms who sets about to destroy him with false charges; and Edward Fairfax Vere, the ship’s captain who lets rigid adherence to regulations trump justice in Billy’s trial for the accidental killing of Claggart. The events occur on a British man o’ war in 1797, though there’s a prologue and epilogue set many years later.

Daniel Belcher as Billy, Phillips Ens as Claggart and Andrew Kennedy as Vere gave performances that strongly enhanced the sense of varied personalities and motivations of the principal characters. Though somewhat uneven vocally, Belcher was superb in all respects in Billy’s soliloquy before his hanging. Ens was menacing both vocally and theatrically throughout, and Kennedy consistently transmitted a sense of Vere’s indecisiveness and lingering guilt.

The rest of the large cast was superb, as were the performances of the Houston Grand Opera chorus and orchestra under Patrick Summers. The orchestra tended to understatement, which is not inappropriate in this brooding tale.

Brian Thomson’s set consists of a large hydraulic platform and a couple of accessory stairs. The platform rises, sinks, tilts and rotates to give the feeling of a ship at sea. Sometimes the movement seemed a little excessive, even though the mechanism stops (mostly) during singing scenes.

Neil Armfield’s staging was highly effective. The near-mutiny after Billy’s execution was a particularly well-brought-off crowd scene.

There are a few miscalculations. Old man Vere was dressed in long johns for his prologue and epilogue, a strange destruction of dignity amid music that certainly doesn’t call for it. Billy’s long ponytail wig is a bit too much. And there was a moment or two when the chorus seemed a little too manic.

Still, overall it was a winner. There’ll be three more repetitions, with other Britten operas to follow through 2013.

For two alternative views of Billy Budd, click here and here.

The Houston Grand Opera is also staging a more familiar work: Puccini’s ultrareliable crowd-pleaser La Bohème. Aside from the exceptional Marcello of Joshua Hopkins, a competent group of singers did their duty on Saturday night without presenting a truly inspired Bohème.

The principals included Ana Maria Martinez (Mimi), Garrett Sorenson (Rodolfo), Albina Shagimuratova (Musetta), Nikolay Didenko (Colline) and Christopher Feigum (Schaunard).

Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera orchestra were in top form.

I liked the way director James Robinson toned down some of the traditional shenanigans in the Cafe Momus scene (Musetta stays off the tables), and the way designer Allen Moyer brought something new to the sets, including Old 191, a steam locomotive that swooshes one last puff of its journey just as Act 3 opens.

For Scott Cantrell’s view, click here.

La Bohème continues through this weekend.

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