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.
NY Met: The End of The Season
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