Photography by Richard Hubert Smith
Earlier this year, Brokeback Mountain—born a short story, embraced as a film—made its debut as an opera in Madrid. Though the two men at the center of the story are closeted and tortured by their love, the opera itself, by composer Charles Wuorinen, who himself is married to a man, is the product of an open and generally accepting society.
In contrast, to watch a production of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera Billy Budd, in a stunning production by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (at BAM through Feb. 13), is to return to a closet of whispers and innuendo.
This is perhaps inevitable given the opera’s origins and the creative team involved. Billy Bud is based on a novella of the same title by Herman Melville, written in the late 1800s and published in 1924, threaded with latent homoeroticism among sailors at sea (reflective, many argue, of Melville’s own proclivities).
Upon this already furtive foundation, the closeted composer Benjamin Britten and a closeted librettist, the novelist E.M. Forster, constructed an all-male opera layered with so much implied passion that it’s practically banal, nearly suffocating from its own subtlety. So too does the Glydndebourne production, for all its strength and beauty, bury the simmering sexuality at the story’s core.
The production is fantastically performed and visually arresting. One of its most successful ingredients is the towering and ominous set, by Christopher Oram, which recreates the interior of an 18th-century British warship. Thick, heavy beams form a grid over a curved, multi-level chamber and sloping floor, suggesting the gaping maws of a leviathan, the belly of a whale, or perhaps a human rib cage that traps the heart like a jail cell. Paule Constable’s lighting illuminates and conceals the space, and the individuals hiding within it, to haunting effect.
Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd
Billy Budd is a new, well-liked member of the crew of the ship Indomitable, which is on the prowl for some Frenchies (a song by three officers listing the cultural offenses of their enemy is a welcome flash of Forster’s wit). Budd’s attractiveness is often noted, as is his overall goodness. The ship’s captain, Vere, takes a fancy to him, as does the Master-at-Arms, Claggart, who vows to destroy Billy for awakening the dark desires of his soul.
To explain this, Claggart sings an aria of shame and desperation, a monologue that speaks as much to the time and place it was written as the new Brokeback Mountain opera speaks to today. The latter, while tragic, is comparatively flamboyant in the explicitness of its subject.
The audience at Billy Budd on Friday, overwhelmingly male and disproportionately gay (no stats to back this up, just astute observation), was there because they know this opera is ultimately about the heart of men and perhaps they suspected that it might be more relevant than ever before. Yet for a production that premiered in 2010 and was restaged in 2013 for the centenary of Britten’s birth, the subtext remains decidedly delitescent.
Perhaps in a world where gay marriage is sweeping Western societies and debate about it rages, where gay rights in Russia and Uganda are drawing international condemnation, the fear of mutiny— personal and collective—that fuels the tension of Billy Budd has something more to offer today. Why not, finally, bring to the forefront that which the various authors—Melville, Britten, Forster—could only suggest in their time?
In one of the final scenes, in which the ship’s crew growl and stomp in mourning for Billy, mutiny seems but moments away. Director Michael Grandage, for all the skill and vision on display here, gives that perilous moment a rather narrow context. Am I saying that this impressive version of Billy Budd isn’t gay enough? Yes I am.
Billy Budd continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through February 13.