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Billy Budd

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As a fitting culmination to LA Opera’s Britten 100/LA Celebration, the company revived Francesca Zambello’s sturdy production of BILLY BUDD. Based on the ambiguous Herman Melville novella, the opera is Benjamin Britten’s most massive; featuring a cast of 20 soloists backed by a large chorus and a grandly scaled orchestra. The work is also, significantly, written for an all-male cast. While this makes perfect sense for a story taking place on an 18th Century man-of-war, it has certainly affected the opera’s place in the standard repertoire. In fact, it is only in the last 20 years, with the rise of the gym-sculpted baritone known as a barihunk, that the opera has gained wide acceptance.

But Britten is concerned with more than an excuse for male pulchritude on stage. BILLY BUDD explores many of his abiding concerns: good vs. evil; pacifism contrasted with violence; and the struggle between duty and compassion, all ll seasoned with a potent dose of homoeroticism. While the opera both simplifies and enlarges upon the Melville story, the focus remains fixed on three major characters: Foretopman Billy Budd, handsome, outgoing and innocent; Captain Vere, intellectual, cautious and principled; and Claggart, the patently evil Master-at-Arms. Their dangerously incompatible personalities ferment just below the surface in a cauldron of repressed desire and half-understood fears. When Claggart, who is determined to destroy perfection, accuses Billy of treason, the startled young man strikes and accidentally kills him. Vere clings to the letter of the law which states that Billy must hang. But he is tortured by the execution for the rest of his life.

Liam Bonner sings his first Billy for LA Opera, but he already owns the role. His honey-tinged but powerful sound is the perfect counterpart to Britten’s angular score, and he effortlessly embodies Billy’s natural innocence. Most singers fail by overplaying the character’s simplicity, yet Bonner never yields to this temptation. He is less the preening, shirtless dazzler than the amiable high school hero unconscious of his powers of attraction. And this choice makes the tragedy all the more keen.

Richard Croft is a compelling and conflicted Vere. He intelligently uses his focused tenor and flawless diction to paint a portrait of a good man caught in a desperate situation. As Claggart, Greer Grimsley brings his formidable Wagnerian vocal arsenal to the role and roundly triumphs. While all of the soloists are solid, particular mention should go to Matthew O’Neill’s slimy Squeak, Jonathan Michie’s energetic Donald, Daniel Sumegi’s controlled Mr. Flint, Greg Fedderly’s vehement Red Whiskers, and the always reliable James Creswell as a compassionate Dansker. The choruses are appropriately haunting.

Zambello’s production, directed by Julia Pevzner, elegantly utilizes a platform, rigging and a mast to suggest not only the claustrophobic confines of a ship, but the boundless expanse of the sea surrounding it. Pevzner marshalls the immense cast with ease and dramatic clarity. In the pit, Maestro Conlon conducts with the passion, verve, and intimate knowledge of an apostle. And it is in Britten’s music, more than E.M. Fortser and Eric Crozier’s libretto, that Vere, and all of us, discover a possibility of redemption.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion    2/22 – 3/16/14     www.laopera.com

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.