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LA Opera Powerfully Tells A Classic Tragic Tale In 'Billy Budd'

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LA Opera's centennial celebration of English composer Benjamin Britten culminates over the next couple weeks with a gripping production of what is arguably his best opera, "Billy Budd." Adapted from Herman Melville's novella of the same name by E.M. Forster, in collaboration with experienced librettist Eric Crozier, this version of the story is a perfect specimen of operatic modernism. You won't walk out with a tune playing in your head, but the music conveys a dark story of repression, cruelty and injustice that can seep directly into an audience's consciousness and stick there.

Although the opera "Billy Budd" was written in the early 1950s, its action takes place largely during the French-English War at the end of the 18th century on board the H.M.S. Indomitable. In Francesca Zambella's production, now in its second run at LA Opera after debuting here in 2000, the warship's oppressive atmosphere is made palpable from the opening image of the crew being worked to exhaustion by the ship's team of middle management officers. With every subsequent crack of the whip, every expression of despair from conscripted seamen forcibly torn from their homes and families, and every assertion of power by their overseers, the sinister pall over the vessel darkens.

This gloom is mitigated considerably by the arrival of an enthusiastic aspiring sailor named Billy Budd (Liam Bonner), a simple, stammering but extremely likable and able-bodied lad of unknown parentage who wants nothing more than to serve his captain and his king in battle against the "Frenchies." Billy is immediately embraced by all his mates on the Indomitable, and most of the officers are impressed by him as well, with the fateful exception of the implacably evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart (Greer Grimsley). The Iago-like Claggart, for his part, is so offended by Billy's undeniable goodness that he falsely accuses the young man of plotting a mutiny against the ship's captain Edward Vere (Richard Croft), an offense punishable by death. Although Vere is reluctant to credit Claggart's dishonest account, Billy's resources to defend himself are drastically limited, and both accuser and accused are dealt severe blows by the untrustworthy hand of a maritime variation on frontier justice.

Perfectly exuding a pure absence of guile as Billy himself, the young baritone Bonner successfully ensnares our emotions in the tragedy that befalls the unlikely hero. In one of the only passages within Britten's opera which might be considered an aria, Billy acknowledges his fate regretfully, but without lamentation, a nuance Bonner expertly captures. As the villain Claggart, Croft offers a wonderfully idiomatic basso malevolence. And in the ambiguous, complex role of the ship's captain, who frames the entire story in narrative reflections at the beginning and end of the opera from a vantage point of years or decades later, Croft makes Vere's irresolute weakness a strength of his own performance.

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Greg Fedderly and LA Opera stalwart James Creswell are particular standouts in an all-around strong supporting all-male cast of Indomitable crewmen. And in what has by now come to seem a matter of course, LA Opera Musical Director James Conlon proves himself again a perfect chameleon of an operatic conductor. He cloaks his orchestra in the somber, complex amelodic tonalities of Britten's score with all the unforced command that we are accustomed to seeing him assume with brighter or more richly Romantic colors elsewhere throughout the repertoire.

LA Opera's "Billy Budd" runs for five more performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion between March 2 and March 16. Tickets $18 and up.