Britten's score finds an eloquent balance between the roiling of the sea and the roiling of the inner torments of Vere and Claggart. The sailors' haunting work chorus ("Heave, oh heave away, heave!") is a continual undercurrent. Unlike the star-centered Makropulos Case, Billy Budd is an ensemble opera, in which the chorus of sailors, like the choruses in many of Britten's operas, has a central role. The Met's superb chorus master, Donald Palumbo (former director of Boston's Chorus pro Musica), has since his appointment in 2006 brought the Met chorus to new heights.
The Met's Claggart in 1978 was bass-baritone James Morris, who seemed the embodiment of evil. Claggart was regarded as his best role. Thirty-four years later (Morris is now 65), it still is. British tenor John Daszak made a heartbreaking Vere. Keith Jameson, Scott Scully, Dwayne Croft, Ryan McKinney, Allan Glassman, and Met stalwart John Cheek made vivid impressions as the various officers and sailors, some well-meaning, some willingly or unwillingly committing evil.
As "Handsome Billy," hunky baritone Nathan Gunn sang beautifully, sympathetically, especially his poignant ballad "Billy in the Darbies" ("Billy in Irons," the song taken directly from Melville). But Gunn seemed more of a contemporary jock than a Christ-like innocent. He was good to hear and easy on the eye, but I didn't believe him for a minute.
The greater hero of the production was conductor David Robertson, who maintained impeccable orchestral balances while he kept the musical sea churning and the musical waves rolling, during both the singing and the great orchestral passages, which include a lubricious saxophone and a complex part for horn that recalls Britten's magnificent 1943 Serenade for Tenor and Horn. The Met uses Britten's final revision, in two acts rather than the original four. I'm not sure it's the better version, but it works.
The Met offered only five performances of The Makropulos Case and only three of Billy Budd. I suppose with top ticket prices exceeding $400, the limited number of performances was one way to guarantee full houses. Those who could afford it got their money's worth. Even the $17 standees, surely the tougher audience, stayed to cheer.