What a sad, noble and beautiful opera Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd is, and how sharply and vividly are its passions enacted in the Paul Curran production currently being presented by the Santa Fe Opera, which I saw this evening (Friday, July 25). The main attraction here, one could argue, is the performance by Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role. Any interpretation leaves room for debate, of course, and one friend with whom I briefly spoke at intermission was unconvinced. But I found Rhodes pretty much perfect: a sterling singer, a fine physical specimen capable of swinging from ropes and climbing nets with gusto, and an actor who provided a pitch-perfect enactment of Budd's character: a swaggering charisma born from guilelessness, a pride too naive to avoid boastfulness.
Still, as Charles T. Downey of Ionarts reminded us in his rather brilliant preview, Billy Budd isn't especially its title character's opera; arguably, the most critical role is Vere (the Peter Pears part, naturally), the ardent, dreamy tenor-pitched captain who recognizes the ultimate cause of Budd's undoing, yet fails to stop it. William Burden sang (and enunciated!) gorgeously, eliciting pity for a character whose private transgression seems nearly beyond pardon.
I initially found Peter Rose not nearly blackhearted enough in the role of Claggart, the master-at-arms whose envy and desire cause him to target Budd for destruction. (Kelly Markgraf, in the minor role of the Bosun, was far more immediately loathsome.) But I came to adjust that view; the softness with which Claggart fondled the kerchief he'd compelled Budd to remove spoke to resisted passions that explained his actions better than any mustachio-twirling malevolence would have done.
The supporting cast was uniformly strong, with especially fine contributions from Keith Jameson, an especially sweet-voiced Novice, and Thomas Hammons, a crusty but sensitive Dansker. (Also worth noting is Richard Stilwell, the Metropolitan Opera's first Billy Budd, cast here as first lieutenant Mr. Redburn.) Robert Innes Hopkins provided a simple but effective set, with a deck that raised to show the crew quarters and Budd's prison cell. Susanne Sheston's chorus was drilled to rousing effect, and Edo de Waart presided over a keenly balanced, sharply detailed account of a score more attractive than I'd remembered. This was the first time I saw the opera performed live, and I was deeply moved by this production.
Admittedly, all of this was a bonus -- which extended to a happy reunion with Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue renown, as well as discovering that the gent sitting next to me was none other than Ionarts maven Downey himself! See, it wasn't Billy Budd that brought me to Santa Fe; I came here for Saturday night's American premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater -- another excellent preview by Downey here -- and specifically to interview the composer prior to her upcoming Mostly Mozart Festival residency. I saw the dress rehearsal of Adriana on Thursday night, about which it would be improper to comment formally. (Informally, then: stunning.)
Chatting with Saariaho on Friday morning was yet another reminder of the remarkable privileges my work provides. And truly, this entire trip so far -- American Airlines agita aside -- has been a magical tonic after the past few weeks' worth of toil and challenge. Last time I was in Santa Fe was 20 years ago on a college band trip, which means this is like getting to know the place all over again. I've consumed some more-than-decent enchiladas, and spent some quality time in the presence of exceptional works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum this afternoon.
When I first arrived here on Thursday afternoon, I drove from the Albuquerque airport to Santa Fe. Motoring though side-by-side showers of sun and rain, I missed the turn for my hotel. By the time I reached the exit for the Santa Fe Opera, I realized I'd gone too far, so I made a U-turn at the next exit on the highway. Driving back toward town, I saw something I'd never seen before: a double rainbow.
This place is magical. Why didn't I come here sooner?