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Billy Budd                  Lyric Opera of Kansas City, 1999

Scott Cantrell - Opera News

For forty years, Lyric Opera of Kansas City was an everything-in-English company.  But for its forty-first season, which opened last fall, new artistic director Ward Holmquist scheduled two operas in Italian, La Traviata and L’Italiana in Algeri. Titles were displayed on screens of computer-controlled LEDs far crisper than projected slides.  And in March, Holmquist addressed the most inscrutable lacuna in the Lyric repertory, the absence of any opera by Benjamin Britten, with a gripping Billy Budd.

Stage director Tim Ocel imagined the whole opera through Vere’s memory—hence the stylized unit set (by Erhard Rom), with its battered, upturned deck, and the distant, silent confrontations between Vere and Billy during the orchestral entr’actes.  Ocel played down Claggart’s attraction to Billy to focus, instead, on a mysterious magnetism between the young sailor and Vere.  Having the hanged Billy swinging in the background, in front of a huge moon, made Vere’s final soliloquy almost unbearably poignant.

A few precarious high notes were small price to pay for Peter Kazaras’ noble, thoughtful—at times frustrated and tormented—Vere.  Never simply aping Peter Pears, Kazaras still suggested the eloquence of the role’s defining interpreter. No mere villain, Jonathan Prescott’s Claggart was as tragic as he was evil.  Claggart’s darkness, deepened by Prescott’s inky, oily bass-baritone, suffered in the glow of Billy’s light.  Billy calls for somewhat more charisma than John Packard could muster, but he certainly looked the part and sang it with a virile baritone.  Brian Steele (Redburn), David Soxman (Flint) and RonWitzke (Ratcliffe) differentiated their roles vividly.  John Stephens and Michael Lanman were wonderfully humane as Dansker and Donald, and Nathan Granner made a touchingly vulnerable Novice.  There were fine contributions from Bruce Barr (Red Whiskers), Mark Huseth (Novice’s Friend) and Chad McAlester (Squeak), as well.  The chorus, prepared by Elvera Voth, wasn’t ideally crisp in some of the trickiest writing, but it gave delight in the sea shanty and thrilled in the would-be battle scene.  Nor was the orchestra (members of the Kansas City Symphony) always so taut—or so flawlessly tuned—as one could have wished.  But Holmquist, who conducted, has brought a hitherto unimaginable discipline to the Lyric pit, and he was in command of every moment.

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Billy Budd


Lyric Opera of Kansas City


Photo: Erhard Rom