Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of BILLY BUDD at SF Opera?

Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of BILLY BUDD at SF Opera?

Billy Budd recently opened at San Francisco Opera and the critics were in attendance! Find out what they had to say.

San Francisco Opera presents Benjamin Britten's masterpiece of law and order on the high seas, Billy Budd, in six performances at the War Memorial Opera House September 7-22. Based on the unfinished novella by Herman Melville and set to a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Billy Budd returns to the Company's repertory after a 15-year absence in the "powerful" (New York Times) staging by Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage. Lawrence Renes conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and an all-male cast of 75 artists, including 44 men from the San Francisco Opera Chorus prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson and 8 boys from the Ragazzi Boys Chorus. The performances coincide with the Melville bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the posthumous discovery of the American author's unfinished manuscript ofBilly Budd.

American tenor William Burden, who last season added George Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's It's a Wonderful Life to his repertory of heroic portrayals at San Francisco Opera, is Edward Fairfax Vere, the captain of the Indomitable whose recollection of a disturbing incident sets the story in motion. American baritone John Chest, a leading artist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin who recently appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival, makes his Company debut as Billy Budd. The former Merola Opera Program participant's voice was praised by Gramophone as "both beautiful and immediately engaging. Virile but distinguished by an appealing vulnerability." Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, winner of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award and who appeared as Zoroastro in Handel's Orlando with San Francisco Opera this summer, is the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart.


James Ambroff-Tahan, SF Examiner: 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.

Nicholas Jones, SF Classical Voice: Like Milton's Satan, infiltrating Eden to drag God's new creatures into sin, Claggart goes after "beauty, handsomeness, goodness" in the person of Billy Budd, an impetuous and resolutely cheerful deckhand. Claggart's schemes garner enough fake evidence for him to accuse Budd of mutiny, which is serious business in the Royal Navy of 1797, fearful of the spread of sedition and discontent after a recent rebellion. Billy fails to defend himself, but lashes out with his fist, killing Claggart at a single blow. Vere summons his officers to conduct a trial, and though the officers plead with their captain to pardon Billy, Vere refuses. Inevitably, Billy is hanged for sedition and murder.

Lois Silverstein, OperaWire: The action of ship life never stopped throughout the opera. Singing was as vital as the rest of the movement, carefully sculpted by acclaimed Tony Award director Michael Grandage who brought the at-sea and underwater atmosphere dramatically to the fore.

Production designer Christopher Oram set the "hulk of a set" on stage, the HMS Indomitable, an 18th century British warship. The production was staged in revival by director Ian Rutherford and featured original lighting design by Paule Constable and executed by David Manion.

Joshua Kosman, The San Francisco Chronicle: The Opera Orchestra, led with conviction if a bit loosely by conductor Lawrence Renes, did full justice to the inventiveness of Britten's instrumental writing. Michael Grandage's production, brought from the Glyndebourne Festival and staged here by director Ian Rutherford, sets the action within a single, almost overpowering stage set by designer Christopher Oram, one that makes the insides of the ship look like a cross between a warehouse, a gladiatorial arena and an Elizabethan theater.

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

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