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Billy Budd                  Lyric Opera of Kansas City, 1999

Robert Marcow - Opera

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City began a new chapter in its 41-year history last year with the resignation of founding director Russell Patterson and the appointments of general director Evan Luskin (managing director of the company since1986) and artistic director Ward Holmquist.  That Kansas City was able to hire a man of the stature of Holmquist—for 11 years he was resident conductor of Houston Grand Opera—speaks volumes for the pride Kansas City takes in its own company.

Operas by American composers have long been a shining light in the company’s repertory policy: Samuel Barber, Robert Ward, Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd and, most recently, Henry Mollicone (the premiere of Coyote Tales), among others, have played a significant role in Lyric Opera's profile.  Until this season, all opera was given in English, regardless of original language(Luskin and Holmquist have reversed that policy).

Kansas City is known for its steaks and barbecue restaurants, not its seafood; it is also known as the ‘Heart of America’, and lies more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest salt water.  Hence, one might not have expected this landlocked city sitting on the edge of the Great Plains to come up with a credible production of an eminently nautical opera like Billy Budd.  Yet not only was this production(seen March 13) true to the spirit, it was unquestionably one of the most artistically fulfilling and viscerally exciting productions of any opera I have encountered in a long time.  One could almost taste the salt spray in the air, hear the wind whistling in the sails and sense the motion of the ship.  Billy Budd swung from the yardarm five metres above the stage in full view of the audience for more than ten minutes.

Here was one of those rare productions where every element came together in one perfectly coordinated, combined effort.  At times the aura of menace and tension was almost palpable.  The orchestra (the Kansas City Symphony) was all spit-‘n’-polish, the chorus shook the deck in its big moments, the producer Tim Ocel alternated briskly active crowd scenes with the contemplative or intimate episodes, and Kendall Smith's lighting design ranged from the oppressive closeness of quarters below deck to the glaring brilliance of the battle scene.  Erhard Rom's single set served for the entire opera, but movable pieces (a backdrop, sails and other paraphernalia, all aided by Smith’s imaginative lighting) provided convincing changes of scene.  For props, there were plenty of ropes, five enormous cannon and rigging.

The title role was sung by John Packard.  With his athletic build, gymnastic agility (the fight with Squeak was frighteningly realistic), handsome features, winning smile and flashing eyes, he looked like the Siegfried of one’s dreams. The voice is not quite powerful enough for a Siegfried, but his high baritone almost puts him within range.  Packard is fully capable of both a thrilling ring and deeply moving introspection.

Every bit his equal was the Captain Vere of Peter Kazaras, who has sung the role at the Metropolitan Opera as well.  Strength, searing intensity and the absence of affectation were the qualities that marked his interpretation.  If there was a weak link in the cast, it was the Claggart of Jonathan Prescott: dressed in an ankle-length dark cape, and perpetually scowling, Prescott looked the incarnation of pure meanness, but the voice was just too beautiful, lacking the venom and bitterness that define this evil character.  All the minor roles were handled with adroitness and conviction, especially the tough old salt Dansker of John Stephens, Redburn (Brian Steele, in his 27th season with Lyric Opera), and Ratcliffe (Ron Witzke).

Nearly every vocalist demonstrated theatrical training as well, resulting in an evening of great theatre enhanced by the power of Britten’s wonderfully evocative score.  It was a night to remember and a production worthy of any operatic stage in the world.

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Billy Budd


Lyric Opera of Kansas City


Photo: Erhard Rom