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TV Review

A Compelling Performance of 'Billy Budd,' the Opera

June 03, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At times, the TV screen can barely contain the emotional power, much less the full sound of the wrenching PBS' Metropolitan Opera Presents production of Benjamin Britten's difficult and compelling "Billy Budd," which airs tonight at 8.

A stereo simulcast would help, but none is scheduled in the Los Angeles area. Still, that's no reason not to tune in.

It's not the music that makes the work difficult. The opera is melodious and richly scored. You can easily come away from it remembering and singing themes and even a tune.

What makes "Billy Budd" difficult is the social, moral and political complexity of the story, skillfully adapted by novelist E.M. Forster and librettist Eric Crozier from Herman Melville's novella.

Impressed into service in the British navy, Billy has a natural innocence that drives the envious master-at-arms, John Claggart, to accuse him falsely of mutiny. Unable to respond to the charge because of his stammer, Billy strikes Claggart dead and has to be hanged for the murder.

Forster and Crozier had to create much of the dialogue, as Melville's story contains little of it. (Their one error is not letting the audience know that Billy's crucial cry, "Farewell, Rights o' Man," is a farewell to his old ship, not a cry for mutiny as the officers take it.)

The cast is splendid, both vocally and dramatically. Dwayne Croft sings the title role, Philip Landridge is Captain Vere and James Morris is the evil Claggart.

Filmed during a live performance conducted brilliantly by Steuart Bedford in March 1997, the telecast benefits from adroit close-up camera work directed by Brian Large.

The confrontation between Billy and Claggart, and the agony on the face of Vere as Billy is about to be hanged, for instance, are moments of great and engrossing drama.

John Dexter created the production, which sets the ship in a black universe, making the story a symbol of humanity's situation, as Melville envisioned it.

William Dudley designed the remarkable sets and costumes. Gil Wechsler is the lighting designer. Bruce Donnell is the stage director.

Following the opera, there is an interesting interview with Theodor Uppman, Britten's original Billy (1951), with a clip from the abridged 1952 NBC television broadcast of the work. Don't miss it.

*

* "Billy Budd," Metropolitan Opera, tonight at 8, on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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