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NY Met: The End of The Season

What with the end of the Bard semester and rushing to prepare for a two week tour of Europe, I haven’t had the time to write about the biggest event on the Mead social calendar in the first half of May: the last night of the 2011-12 season at the Metropolitan Opera.

The season closed with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s stunning Billy Budd, the extraordinary adaptation of Melville’s short story. A group of us, including a couple of old friends I’ve known for thirty years, decided to make a big evening of it; we booked a table at the Met’s in-house restaurant, the Grand Tier, for dinner and a get together before the show.

Out of towners coming to the opera might want to check this out. There are now quite a few great restaurants around Lincoln Center that cater to people who need to eat early and get to a performance, but there is something very special about eating in the opera house itself.

The first time I ate in that restaurant was something like a quarter century ago. A friend then writing for the Wall Street Journal had somehow landed the assignment to cover the opening night of the Met’s then-new Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca; as her plus-one I got to tag along not only to the opera but to the dinner before. We were about three tables away from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; during the intermission I ran into Lauren Bacall.

It’s not like that all the time at the Grand Tier or the Met for that matter, but night after night it’s one of the great New York experiences. Last week the conversation and the food were great, but the show was the star. The best operatic adaptations of literary works compress and highlight the essential elements of a play or a story, highlighting the emotional conflicts and providing a direct window into the consciousness of the characters.

Having different characters on stage singing about their own thoughts and ideas offers a way to dramatize the perspective of an omniscient narrator: you can be inside the heads of Claggart, Vere, Billy Budd and other members of the crew and the blending and contrasts in their voices illustrates the relationship between their thoughts and emotions. Good novelists can take you inside characters; opera can reproduce this and even add to it.

The libretto is by E.M Forster and longtime Britten collaborator Eric Crozier; at a time when homosexual acts were still a crime in Britain, the all-male setting and the strong homoerotic undercurrents in the original work seem to have brought an intense focus to Forster’s adaptation in ways that heighten Melville’s drama. At the same time, the libretto benefits from Forster’s grounding in the specifically British background to Melville’s story. The officers on the Indomitable are haunted by recent mutinies in the British fleet; the late 1790s saw the worst unrest in British naval history and the Spithead and Nore mutinies of 1797 threatened Britain just as the war with Napoleon was reaching a crisis. Vere’s decision that Budd must hang for striking the odious Claggart can only be understood against this background, and the libretto handles this extremely well.

This opera, like so many of the great ones, is deeply Christian. When I studied Billy Budd in high school and college, and when I’ve taught it, I’ve always focused on the ways in which Captain Vere is a kind of everyman, above the bestial Claggart but below the celestial innocence of Billy Budd. The name “Vere” recalls the Latin word ‘vir’, meaning man. This approach to the book helps students link the story on the ship to bigger questions of human life and meaning, and the opera does justice to this interpretation.

But it does something more; Forster’s libretto highlights the similarity between the trial of Budd before Vere and the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Like Pilate, Vere must sit in judgment of a man so innocent that he challenges the basis of law and ordered society; like Pilate, Vere is so bound by his commitment to duty and the defense of the social order that he must condemn a good and innocent man to die for the sake of the people. This is a tragic choice; for Vere there is no good way out. The name Vere is also related to the Latin word for ‘truth’, and the truth is of no more use to Captain Vere than it was to Pilate. That Budd like Christ forgives those who put him to death — his last words are a blessing on Captain Vere — offers a hope of redemption, but this is not an opera about easy options or “cheap grace.”

The Met’s production further intensifies the drama; everything takes place on the narrow decks of a ship that does not fill the whole stage. The paradoxical claustrophobia of a crowded ship on an empty sea comes across; the men are lost in an immensity of space, and they have no room to themselves. It is Melville’s vision, brilliantly brought to life.

Good food, good friends, great art: this is what New York and a handful of other great cities around the world can offer. We have a few months now until the new season starts; HD rebroadcasts can help fill the gap for those who really can’t wait (schedule here).

And next year’s HD schedule looks rich as well: Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, Berlioz and Handel are all headed our way. The Mead tickets are already bought, the plans already laid.

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  • Lorenz Gude

    When it comes to opera I am not an easy sell, but I can be won over. You make Billy Budd seem like I might actually like it. Connecting Vere and Pilate reminds me of a recent performance of a contemporary version of The Passion here in Perth. It was a warm up performance by a London based company and took place outdoors on a beautiful late summer afternoon in a space much larger than is possible indoors and required the support of dozens of local actors and actresses to fill ‘the stage’. Pilate was convincing, Christ not. And I suppose that is to be expected – Pilate’s predicament is all too familiar.

  • Jim.

    Only a handful of “great” cities, but a nice selection of smaller one worth a look, for a weekend with good friends. On the West Coast, just off the top of my head:

    – the Carmel-by-the-Sea Bach Festival. As a plus, has Pebble Beach golf nearby. It’s got a nicely “walkable” downtown as well, with the added advantage of being a place you’d actualy care to go for a walk in. Beautiful.

    – the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The selection of fine dining may not match NY’s, but the scenery has the grimy steel troughs of NYC beat all hollow.

    – if you like grimy steel troughs with a world-class orchestra and good restaurants, San Fransisco might appeal to you. It’s got some nice scenery too, provided you leave the city.

  • thibaud

    Lovely. Thanks so much for the tip, Mr. Mead. More like this, pls.

    btw, is Cafe des Artistes still open? Back in the day, that was my preferred hangout after going to Lincoln Center.

  • Luke Lea

    God, you make me jealous! I feel like a rube.

  • WigWag

    Is Melville extolling Christianity in “Billy Budd”

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Melville’s attitude toward Christianity was complicated but he wrestled with it all his life; the opera libretto stresses his Christian side.

  • Rhodium Heart

    Is Melville extolling Christianity in Billy Budd? Is he ever! Billy Budd is most definitely a Christ figure, one who must be put to death so that others may live. It doesn’t get more Christian than that.

    Captain Vere is not so much a Pilate figure, as he is a metaphor (stand-in, actually) for the judiciary in American society. The struggle between justice and fairness in rendering a decision. Quite a lot happening in a novella (rather than a short story).

  • WigWag

    Actually, I don’t think Melville was extolling the virtues of Christianity in “Billy Budd,” more likely he was ridiculing Christianity. While Melville joined the Unitarian Church to please his wife (are Unitarians even Christian?), according to his biographers, Melville detested Unitarianism. We also know that Melville, who spent some time in Hawaii, had a very problematic relationship with Christian missionaries there. Many commentators try to find Christian themes in Melville’s work and in the work of his contemporary, Walt Whitman. Neither rejected Christianity entirely; they both hoped that their work would transcend Christianity. It did.

    While many operas have Christian themes, few of the greatest operas do (although I did enjoy “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and the second opera in “Il Trittico,” “Suor Angelica” by Puccini which takes place in a convent).

    I think Benjamin Britten’s best opera is not “Billy Budd” but “The Turn of the Screw” which is based on a novella by the (closeted gay) author and essayist, Henry James. Britten’s opera hardly celebrates Christian themes; it is about a young boy (Miles) who is sexually abused first by his former governess (Miss Jessel) and then raped and murdered by the gardener (Peter Quint). The opera, when performed correctly, is both riveting and disturbing; there are no Christian themes from Britten here.

    Many critics believe that the three Mozart operas written in conjunction with Lorenzo Da Ponte are the best operas ever written; I agree. While none of these operas can be considered anti-Christian, in one way or another they all reject Christian values and instead celebrate Enlightenment values. This is hardly surprising considering that they were written at the height of the Enlightenment in Vienna.

    In the sublime Cosi Fan Tutti, the theme is wife swapping or more specifically fiancé-swapping. It’s hard to imagine an opera more disdainful of traditional Christian conceptions of the proper relationship between men and women.

    In “Le Nozze de Figaro” Count Almaviva, who lusts after his wife’s servant, gets his comeuppance at the hands of his wife, the servant who he desires and her fiancé, the clever Figaro. The opera, which is both beautiful and hysterical ridicules authority figures and derives its humor from the fact that the servants are so much smarter than the aristocrats. Again, traditional Christian themes of respect for authority are turned on their head. Da Ponte’s libretto was based on a play by a European hero of the American Revolution, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais had little use for Christianity and he became an avid supporter of the French Revolution (he bought arms for the Revolutionaries from the Dutch and he favored stripping the French clergy of all of their property).

    Perhaps the single greatest opera ever written was “Don Giovanni.” The naive interpretation of this opera is that the protagonist was dastardly. A more sophisticated interpretation is that he broke all of the conventions mandated by the Church to release mankind from the oppressive dictates of the Christian religion. This interpretation is confirmed by the opera’s final scene; Giovanni, given an opportunity to repent, refuses. Instead, he is willingly dragged into hell cursing Gods name. It is harder to imagine a more thorough Enlightenment hero than Don Giovanni.

    If Mozart was the greatest composer of opera who has ever lived, his counterpart, Da Ponte, was the greatest librettist. Da Ponte also found Christianity tiresome. He was a defrocked Priest who married twice and engaged in numerous extramarital sexual liaisons. His life was somewhat reminiscent of both the fictional Don Giovanni and Casanova, the real character who Da Ponte based the Giovanni character on (Casanova and Da Ponte were friends). The behavior of Da Ponte was so outrageous that (like Casanova) he was actually banished from several Italian cities, which is how he ended up in Vienna and met Mozart.

    There is a wonderful biography of Da Ponte that is highly entertaining that every opera fan should read; “The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte–Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario.”–Mozarts/dp/1596911182/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337559316&sr=1-1

    Anyone who reads it will understand very quickly that exploring themes pertinent to Christianity was very far down on Da Ponte’s list of priorities.

    While Professor Mead is right that the exploration of Christian themes does play a role in some operas, the greatest operas were a product of the Enlightenment and the greatest operatic composers thrived during an Enlightenment period that was clearly a repudiation, at least in part, of traditional Christianity.

    Herman Melville, the author of “Billy Budd” didn’t think much of Christianity. Neither did Henry James, Beaumarches or Da Ponte. One of the things that makes opera so interesting is that it breaks the fetters imposed on people by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    Opera is about the glory of human creativity, not the glory of God.

  • WigWag

    By the way, Professor Mead, another great choice for dining when you visit Lincoln Center is Joanne Trattoria, NYC. The restaurant is less than a year old; I ate there for the first time last week and was very pleasantly surprised; the food is excellent and the prices are reasonable (relatively speaking).

    It’s located a few short blocks from Lincoln Center at 70 West 68th Street. The cuisine is Italian (I had the Osso Bucco) and the staff is very friendly. As it happens, the restaurant is owned by Lady Gaga’s mother and father, Joe and Cynthia Germanotta; but don’t let that stop you. Joe, who I am told is usually there, is a big opera fan. Mention that you are heading to the MET and he will almost certainly provide you with his review of what you are about to see/hear.

    In case you are interested in the menu, it can be found here,

  • WigWag

    “btw, is Cafe des Artistes still open? Back in the day, that was my preferred hangout after going to Lincoln Center.” (thibaud)

    I used to love it too. Sadly the restaurant closed in 2009. I always wondered what happened to the lovely murals that adorned the walls.

    Here’s an article about the closing of Cafe de Artistes.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

  • Anthony

    “Good friends, good food, and great art….” What a country we have (and some excellent world class cities).

  • thibaud

    @ Wig – No worries. CDA was a part of my youth, which is only a distant memory.

  • Kris
  • WigWag

    Yes, Kris; thank you. I read “Spengler” faithfully at PJ Media and also his music column at “Tablet” magazine. Occasionally I catch him at the “Asia Times.” In a certain way he reminds me of Professor Mead; brilliant, eloquent, thoughtful, cheeky and frequently wrong.

  • BlogDog

    I have come to opera late in life but find that I am rather stuck on bel canto. I find most modern works grating and insalubrious. But I will certainly give “Billy Budd” a chance when I can.
    I feel lucky that we live in an era of the most amazing divas. Fleming, Netrebko, Geoghiu, Garanca, Damrau, DiDonato. Wonderful voices, engaging actresses and stunning beauties. There is much for which to be grateful in opera today. (I am also rather taken with Juan Diego Florez since I saw him in the Met’s “Comte Ory.” All the things I said about the divas applies to him but please sub in “handsome” for “stunning beaut[y]!”)

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