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Billy Budd


uwsman2
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Yesterday evening I attended the first performance of the season of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's opera, "Billy Budd," based on the novella by Herman Melville. This is still the 1978 production, but it has certainly stood the test of time, and played a major role in fixing this opera into the standard repertory of major houses.

 

All-male cast, British man-o-war at sea of France during the Napoleonic wars. Depending how much the performers want to indulge it, they could really play up the homoerotic subtext, but this cast really doesn't. Part of the problem is that Nathan Gunn, singing the role of Billy, has aged out of a credible performance, I think. Billy has to be credibly much younger than the mature Gunn. If you shut your eyes, then you're fine with Gunn, who sings the role marvelously. But he is just too mature looking to portray the innocent, naive young good-hearted sailor. There's too much milage now. The rest of the cast is marvelous. James Morris is absolutely staggering as the evil Claggart, and John Daszak (Met debut) is fine as Captain Vere. There are a few more performances. It's definitely worth catching for the great music and splendid production.

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I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to "shut their eyes" during a Nathan Gunn performance… Shirt on or shirtless the guy is a looker… and even if he has “aged” a bit… OK not the quintessence of innocence… but given the photographic evidence below (the second photo is Gunn as Billy Budd from the Chicago Opera production) I rest my case.

 

This could also lead to a discussion of what is more important in opera… and some would say what is currently wrong with opera… looks or voice… and would someone like Montserrat Caballé or Luciano Pavarotti be able to make it in the business today? I think that the current trend on casting for looks (and if it didn’t exactly start the “little black dress incident” that certainly got the ball rolling) has probably hindered a lot of careers and bolstered others… with voice not being the determining factor… In an ideal world we would want to have both… but such a place does not always exist.

 

I’ll admit to being influenced by the current trend… how one can not be? As an example earlier in the season I saw both the luscious Anna Netrebko and the buxom and full-figured Angela Meade as Ann Boleyn in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and there was no contest as to who better looked the part. In fact, I still remember the imperious sweep with which Netrebko made her entrance… only possibly Callas would have done as well or better. After seeming Netrebko one indeed wanted to close their eyes for poor Ms. Meade…

 

So while I can relate to the concept… I hardly think I would consider shutting my eyes for the yummy Mr. Gunn.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_2XQGh7lO9OU/TA4-KgOjq1I/AAAAAAAAFrc/Or856bJ6yWk/s1600/gunn-2.jpghttp://www.thestandingroom.com/photos/nathan_gunn/billybuddchicago1.jpg

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Excellent point, Whipped.

 

Keeping in mind that Benjamin Britten wrote much of his vocal music fo his close friend, Peter Prears, who was not at all what I would call handsome, but who had once of the most unique tenor voices of his era... well.. if we based casting on looks, would we have ever had the joy and pleasure of hearing him premier PETER GRIMES or BILLY BUDD and Britten's other works. Yes, his voice was controversial, but the very first time I heard him sing PETER GRIMES (on a soundtrack on a plane), and heard especially his aria in Act II, I was captivated by that sound he produced, and his ability to be so clear on such high notes.

 

As to Nathan Gunn, although almost 42, and so admittedly a bit old for singing the role of Billy in BILLY BUDD, it is hard to find high quality baritones and tenors in their late teens or early 20;s who could tackle such a role and be believable. I'd listen to Gunn eyes closed or more eyes wide opened anytime as I like the mellowness of his voice.

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Of course, Pears sang Captain Vere in Billy Budd not the title character which is written for a baritone.

 

I find myself completely baffled by the original poster's comments. Gunn has aged? I happen to know him quite well. He's in his early 40s and he has the face and body of a 26 year old. He has hardly aged a day. He has one of those boyishly handsome looks that will make him look boyish until he's 60. Much like one of our favorite escorts -- Jon Ramsey -- now in his 40s but still with the look and body of a much younger man.

 

The role was perfect for him 10 years ago and it's still perfect for him. I was at the opening night performance and, a few quibbles aside, I thought it was a terrific evening that I enjoyed very much. I really can't imagine anyone arguing, successfully, that Nathan Gunn is too "old" or too "old-looking" for the part.

 

That may just be the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard on this board. 42 is not too old to sing Billy Budd when you look and sound like Nathan Gunn.

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Excellent point, Whipped.

 

Keeping in mind that Benjamin Britten wrote much of his vocal music fo his close friend, Peter Prears, who was not at all what I would call handsome, but who had once of the most unique tenor voices of his era... well.. if we based casting on looks, would we have ever had the joy and pleasure of hearing him premier PETER GRIMES or BILLY BUDD and Britten's other works. Yes, his voice was controversial, but the very first time I heard him sing PETER GRIMES (on a soundtrack on a plane), and heard especially his aria in Act II, I was captivated by that sound he produced, and his ability to be so clear on such high notes.

 

As to Nathan Gunn, although almost 42, and so admittedly a bit old for singing the role of Billy in BILLY BUDD, it is hard to find high quality baritones and tenors in their late teens or early 20;s who could tackle such a role and be believable. I'd listen to Gunn eyes closed or more eyes wide opened anytime as I like the mellowness of his voice.

 

Well, of course, Mr. Pears, as we know, was a bit more than Britten's "close friend" lol - also, Budd is the handsome one, not necessarily Captain Vere. ;-) (IMO Peter Grimes need not be a looker either.)

 

As to Gunn's age, and the feasibilty of finding baritones in their 20's to sing Billy, for more "verisimilitude" - this has always been an issue in opera casting, and I think it always will be. Otherwise we'd be seeing a rash of teenage girls cast as Butterfly or Manon, etc - and they wouldn't be ready to handle such roles vocally, let alone understand how to bring nuance to the characters. Opera is also one of the few forms of theatre where we READILY ignore what is often called "non-traditional casting" in terms of race - operagoers will easily accept a non-Asian Butterfly, or caucasian singers as Egyptians and Ethiopians in Aida - the kind of casting that would be big media attention if we were talking about a Broadway show instead. (Porgy And Bess is the only opera I know where it's a contractual stipulation that the black roles be played only by black singers - though again, there's nothing about casting AGE-appropriately in there, lol.)

 

I heard portions of the 2 Sirius broadcasts of Billy Budd and enjoyed what I heard quite a bit. Some people on one opera forum who saw the piece live in the house felt that Gunn didn't have enough power in his voice, but on the air, he sounded great to me. The Vere, John Daszak, was a nice surprise to me - some thought he sounded too pushed and gruff, but I enjoyed hearing a darker-voiced Vere than I'm used to - to me, it added a needed dimension to the character, who I have always felt doesn't need to be as "weak" as some critics (of the opera and of the Melville novel) feel he is.

Britten's score is pure genius, and parts of it move me to tears every time I hear it. (Same with Peter Grimes.)

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