Very live at the Met

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 21, 2012

Janácek was 72 when he completed this opera, the last he lived to see through production, and one of his most potent scores. It's very much the setting of a play — all conversation, with no formal arias. Yet unlike so many contemporary operas that eschew set pieces, the music is always compelling, by turns ironic and intensely, richly lyrical. Even the plot exposition has real music. Every note, every unsettling chord, every rhythmic twist bears Janácek's stamp. Jirí Belohlávek, who recently led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in John Harbison's Symphony No. 5, obviously knows the inflections of the Czech language, so the orchestra sounded not only ravishing but idiomatic.

The cast abounded in convincing actors who were also impressive vocally: tenor Richard Leech as Emilia's great-great-great-great (etc.) grandson, who is also in love with her; Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter (his Met debut role) as the litigant who gives up the secret formula for one night with cold-blooded Emilia; baritone Tom Fox as the chief lawyer; the superb British tenor Alan Oke as the law clerk Vitek, father of the young soprano, Kristina, sung by young soprano Emalie Savoy (in her Met debut role), who is also the fiancée of the suicidal Janek, tenor Matthew Plenk. Great opera ought to be great theater. This was both.

EMBODIMENT OF EVIL James Morris's Claggart in the Met's Billy Budd was considered his strongest role when he debuted this production in 1978 — it still is.

The Met closed its 2011-2012 season with Benjamin Britten's powerful Billy Budd, his 1951 opera based on Melville's unfinished novella, with a libretto co-authored (with Eric Crozier) by no less a literary light than E.M. Forster (who had made a case for the newly discovered Melville story in his lectures on the novel). The Met's famous production by John Dexter dates from 1978. Britten's life-partner, tenor Peter Pears, for whom the role of the conflicted Captain Vere — "Starry Vere" his men call him — was written, appeared in that first Met production. Reviewing this revival, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that "few recent Met productions are bolder or fresher." The stage design for this tragic tale of the brutal treatment of "impressed" seamen and of innocence betrayed is the cross-section of an 18th-century British warship. Dexter took full advantage of the Met's vast stage elevators to show us every level of the H.M.S. Indomitable, from top deck to captain's quarters, and down even lower to the sailors' hold. It's thrilling to watch the seamlessly ascending and descending stage pictures, yet our focus is never allowed to shift from the story's gripping and awful events.

The composer and librettist, among the 20th-century's most distinguished homosexual artists, are more suggestive than Melville about the story's underlying homoeroticism (it has an all-male cast). The sadistic and malevolent Claggart, Master-at-Arms, knows that sweet Billy is the best sailor on board, the most courageous, the most accommodating. Yet, like Shakespeare's Iago in Othello, he can't repress his overwhelming impulse to destroy a noble figure. He loathes himself for his attraction to Billy. The opera begins and ends with the old Captain Vere looking back with guilt and profound regret for his inability to save Billy from being hanged for killing an officer. Billy's inarticulate stuttering incapacitates him from denying Claggart's false charges of mutiny, and so the only way he can defend himself is to violently strike Claggart, accidentally knocking him dead.

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