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Billy Budd                  Lyric Opera of Kansas, 1999

Scott Cantrell - Kansas City Star

It has taken 41 years for Benjamin Britten, by common consent the greatest composer of opera in English since the 17th century's Henry Purcell, to enter the repertory of Lyric Opera of Kansas City.  But it was worth waiting for the superbly cast  and provocatively staged Billy Budd that runs throug Sunday.

Billy, the eager, innocent young sailor on board an 18th-century British warship, personifies goodness.  John Claggart, the ships master at arms, is evil itself.  Billy, dumbstruck when falsely accused of fomenting mutiny, strikes Claggart and accidentally kills him.  Captain Vere sees Billy and Claggart for what they are, but he declines to stay the execution prescribed by law.  In the opera’s prologue and epilogue, Vere, now an old man, wrestles with his long-ago decision.

Lyric has a real find in stage director Tim Ocel, who in an opera very much about human ambiguities has plumbed new depths of nuance.  The effect is much enhanced by stylized, evocative scenery by Erhard Rom and lighting by Kendall Smith.

Particularly striking is Jonathan Prescott’s portrayal of the master at arms as not merely evil, but tragic.  Claggart’s darkness, enriched by Prescott's inky, oily bass-baritone, suffers in the glare of Billy’s light.  And mute, distant confrontations between Billy and Vere during orchestral entr’actes underline a mysterious magnetism.

A few precarious high notes are small prices to pay for Peter Kazaras’ noble, thoughtful—at times frustrated and tormented—Vere.  And Kazaras savors every phrase of the poetic libretto (by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, after the Herman Melville novella).

The role of Billy is a casting nightmare: He must be boyishly handsome, enthusiastic and somehow untouched by evil.  John Packard is a bit short on charisma, and, at least on opening night, he let his scene in chains go too slack.  But he certainly looks the part and sings it magnificently.…

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Billy Budd


Lyric Opera of Kansas City


Photo: Erhard Rom