Sunday, September 28, 2008

BILLY BUDD performance

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Billy Budd, picture Steven Siewert, SMH

Wednesday was the opening night of Billy Budd. We are not really opening-night-people, but there we were, with M, a work friend, and L, one of my sisters. M is a voracious reader, very familiar with Melville, and a lover of all music good and meaningful. It was her first go at Billy Budd. L has been living in the Kimberleys for more than 30 years, where life’s focus is a long way from 20th Century opera, but not from ambiguity and the search for meaning. Now widowed, she has returned to Sydney and is sponging up whatever is on offer. It was also her first go at Billy. There was little bit of who’s whoing going on, but the Opera House seemed quiet and relaxed, nothing in the Concert Hall, few tourists, and what was good, and this applies to all these not–for-everyone sort of shows, most people are there because they really want to be.

My recollection of this Billy Budd was that the set projected out towards the pit, poking out into the proscenium arch, so I was surprised to see the curtain down. More memory doubts. By the end of the night I realised what had happened – this production is a perfect fit for this theatre, the right size, the right colours, the right everything to the point that it seems that the whole theatre is the set, the stage just one end of it, and we are all there, all of us on the black ocean. I had so approximated the drama in my mind that my recall was of such an enhanced perception that the set and the spaces about it had indeed become one.

It was a very satisfying, emotional and ultimately exhausting night. M cried at the end. I experienced a wave of emotion somewhere early in the first act, that place where you realise you are slipping into something of such worth and certainty of excellence that you give yourself up to it completely.

Brian Thomson’s set is genius, an abstract hydraulic of society’s many levels, relentless shifts and uncertainties, class, imbalance, power and oppression, authority and control. Carl Friedrich Oberle’s costumes perfectly rooted the action at sea in the late 18th C, a dirty underclass, officers pumped up, their ridiculous hats to make little men and little minds big and imposing, like frill-necked lizards confronted with threat. The lighting by Nigel Levings made magic, and Neil Armfield, present in the audience, had his stamp all over it – everything with a purpose, and every priorty in place.

My only question mark was over the most critical scene of all, the trial scene. This was on a high deck, half-way up the stage height, and a good way back. It seemed too remote a placement for such an intense and personal moment, when Vere confronts his own demons, and for whatever reasons, hides behind the rules of the law of man, as all our leaders do today, yesterday, last week, last year, unable to deal with the truth, the outer and his inner truth, and weakly stays mute as Billy is judged. Strangely, this was the only time I felt I was watching something instead of being somewhere. Billy's final plea "I'd have died for you, save me!" was lost in the emptiness of it all. Perhaps that’s right after all.

Philip Langridge was in full control of the stage, and his voice, except for a few cracks at the upper limits. There was a spontaneous couple of coughs at one moment. I wondered if he had a cold, or lingering pilgrim flu, like the rest of the city. His return to a safer pitch for the epilogue brought an outporing of resolution, his acceptance of his own circumstance, and reconciliation with his position, a reconciliation based on Billy’s forgiveness, a lesson for us still struggling to forgive him (Vere) for our perception of his moral weakness, we less loving than Billy.

The Epilogue and his lonely silent stage exit had the house frozen and M crying.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes was wonderful, full of wonder. I was sceptical. He looked good, lean, very muscular, even slightly feminised with long blond hair, repeatedly brushing it away, but at the same time, no less masculine. There was something almost androgynous there, that sex was no matter, something you sometimes see in people completely at ease with their own sexuality, and that of others, such that matters of sex are beyond judgement. And his teeth shone white in the blackness. His voice was beautifully modulated, without the burnished brassiness you often hear when he is playing butch-man, and the sweetness of his final farewell "Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!" was the sweetest baritone singing on stage I have ever heard.

Claggart was well served by John Wegner, his bass oiling across the decks, his demeanour almost too vile, perhaps less external evil would have emphasised the internal darkness more.

Conal Coad was so evocative as the old tender hearted seaman, god he’s a good performer, and especially worth mentioning, they were all very good, was the Novice of Andrew Goodwin, and his beautifully enunciated downstage struggle against his fate "It's unjust, it's unfair!"

Mr Hickox and the orchestra, odd brass blurt notwithstanding, made great sense of this, never better than the great 34 chord interlude, the silent interview, the offstage scene between Vere and Billy, the messanger of death facing his own weakness and Billy’s acceptance.

And the mighty choruses were mighty choruses.

ABC have an video interview with Teddy Tahu Rhodes (04:32) , about this role and working with Neil Armfield, including some production footage.

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