Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second opportunity to experience the performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 50 opera, Billy Budd, by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Regular readers should know by now that my wife and I have subscription tickets that afford an excellent view of the orchestra pit, presided over, for this production, by Lawrence Renes. For most opera composers the “action in the pit” is a sometime thing. However, Britten’s ear for achieving just the right sonorities was so keen and reliable that, for someone like myself, the question of what he is doing with his instruments is almost impossible to avoid asking.
Of course some of those sonorities are easily detected without visual assistance. The sound of the saxophone is so unique (regardless of the genre of the music) that the rhetorical message it delivers throughout the course of Billy Budd is unmistakeable. The same can be said of the piccolo solo (played by Stephanie McNab) that pervades Billy’s final aria (given an unforgettable account by baritone John Chest), “Look! Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!” That piccolo solo is basically a “sound effect” of a sailor piping a tune up on deck (perhaps rehearsing for the solemn event that will come in the morning), while, down below, Billy is reflecting on his final hours of life.
However, there are also abundant sonorities whose comprehension tends to involve recognizing which instruments are “in play” as they resound. There are homophonic passages for a pair of bass clarinets that yield a sonority even eerier than that of a solo instrument. Similarly, doubling the piccolos adds yet another barb of tension of the execution scene.
None of this, of course, is intended to disparage Britten’s mastery of the string section. In the opening measures the string have an in media res quality, suggesting that they had been playing very softly before their sounds actually became audible. The very opening measures establish the libretto’s motif of “lost in the infinite sea” even before the stage becomes visible. Then, of course, toward the ending of the opera one encounters a thoroughly ravishing cello solo, given all of its best expressive qualities by Principal Cello David Kadarauch.
Similarly, there is no end of astonishing blending of winds and brass. Different combinations of these instruments are enlisted for a variety of chorale passages. Some of those combinations bear an uncanny resemblance to the chorale that opens the third movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (“Leningrad”) symphony. (Britten would not meet Shostakovich until 1960, when he was just beginning to work on revisions to Billy Budd that would result in the version currently being performed by SFO.) The sonorities are unmistakably Britten, but I would be surprised if he had been totally unaware of the Shostakovich repertoire.
Chorale writing also figures in the musical interlude that precedes Billy’s final aria. This is a straightforward sequence of chords with no rhythmic embellishment. However, each chord is played by a different combination of instruments. Thus, the brutally objective conviction of the sentence passed on Billy churns with the uncertainty of sonorities that will not settle into a single consistent pattern.
John Chest as Billy Budd, front and center, with the crew of the HMS Indomitable (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
Finally, looking up from the orchestra pit, so to speak, it would be unfair to overlook the rich sonorities of the male choral writing. These passages extend over a wide gamut of rhetorical dispositions, with folk tunes at one extreme and the wordless grumbling of the crew after Billy’s death at the other. The preparatory work of Chorus Director Ian Robertson establishes context across the entirety of the opera’s narrative. The program sheet must account for a prodigious number of solo voices, but the choral writing is the foundation upon which that plethora of individual character types are developed.