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An unfinished, legendarily difficult 19th-century American text, given a musical setting by a thoroughly English 20th-century composer and a libretto by the guy who did A Room With a View—despite itself, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is proof that sometimes, it all just works. And the Washington National Opera’s current production is one those rare occasions when a masterful score, a compelling libretto, the right singers, a true believer on the podium, and a production team with cogent storytelling ideas can combine to remind us that opera doesn’t have to be a ludicrous monstrosity, but rather the greatest of theatrical forms.

Britten’s 1951 opera is set above and below decks on the HMS Indomitable in 1797, during the French Wars, and stage director Francesca Zambello goes to great lengths to remind us that this particular vessel isn’t exactly the Love Boat. She turns the opening sailors’ chorus into something out of a forced-labor camp, with a bone-tired crew scrubbing every inch of deck in the scorching sun while being humiliated and beaten sadistically by a gang of thuggish officers. And she packs the crew’s hammocks together in choking proximity like so many insect larvae, with sailors forced to crawl through their quarters to find a place to stand up straight.

Indeed, Alison Chitty’s set doesn’t merely function as another character here, but practically as a co-director. A huge, raised triangular platform, its point jutting dramatically beyond the proscenium, cantilevers up and down to suggest a looming prow, a lurching deck, or those claustrophobic cabins below. The mast is evocative of both a crucifix and a dangerous electrical tower, not least because of the dozens of gleaming high-tension wires running horizontally across it—which suggest exposed power lines or razor-sharp prison fencing as much as they do the contours of an abstracted maritime horizon.

It’s a strikingly handsome production throughout, and it boasts a welcome absence of histrionics. Plot strands are rendered with great clarity in Act 1, though just the massing and dispersion of the chorus and the isolation of key principals in sharply cut squares of light. As the story hurtles to its tragic end in Act 2, the staging becomes simplicity itself, the climactic execution scene carried out with brutal naturalism, smack at center stage. And almost without exception in this huge cast, understatement and plausibly grounded behavior take the place of arm-waving and face-making.

The story revolves around a troika of characters—the sadistic master-at-arms, John Claggart; the dreamily philosophical commander, Captain Vere; and the impossibly good recruit, Billy Budd—and treats the ship’s crew as something of a Greek chorus. The plot is set into motion when Claggart, sensing his own homoerotic longings for Billy—not to mention his envy of Billy’s “beauty, handsomeness, and goodness”—contrives to destroy the young sailor by planting evidence that implicates him as a mutineer. Veteran bass Samuel Ramey’s deadeyed, quietly malevolent interpretation is a more menacing and effective creation than the whole pack of devil roles he’s so famous for playing. His furtive glances at Billy are at once creepy and unexpectedly touching, and his big aria, which would sound just as appropriate in the mouths of Shakespeare’s Iago, Wagner’s Hagen, or Shaffer’s Salieri, finds his now-weathered voice in electrifying form and his dramatic instincts at their keenest. Ramey makes this final scene of Act 1 just the spur we need to pull us into the tragedy of Act 2.

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Launched on an engulfing wave of testosterone by a battle-hungry sailor’s chorus, the second act moves from high point to high point: Claggart’s accusation of Billy, the interrogation, Billy’s defensive strike, Claggart’s death from Billy’s blow, the court-martial, Billy’s execution, and the stirrings of mutiny that follow. And finally, the flash-forward to a geriatric Vere, turning the events that took place on the Indomitable over and over in his head years later. Only when Billy is dead does Zambello allow her choristers to lurch, roar, and saw at the air with impotent rage: The sailor admired by them all, the symbol of their better selves, has been snuffed out. The reaction his death provokes in them is elemental, monstrous.

The librettists—E.M. Forster, of course, and his collaborator, Eric Crozier—reach eloquent heights in these final scenes, transforming Herman Melville’s novella into a piece of existential theater that’s part morality play, part courtroom drama, part meditation on the nature of good and evil, part social treatise. When not trading in the almost comically inscrutable sailor’s jargon of 200-plus years ago (“Pull my sparrow legs!”), their language is both operatic and everyday, both laconic and expansively singable, and full of lofty ideas yet as simple as folk-song lyrics.

Britten responded with some of his most atmospheric and approachable music. His haunted, angular scores are generally easier to admire than they are to cozy up to—hell, even his A Midsummer Night’s Dream is dark and predatory—but in the second act of Budd, a warmth filters through Britten’s customary chill, and his canny use of older operatic forms proves particularly involving. Britten, in fact, may be the only composer of the last half-century who managed to appropriate the anachronistic, self-consciously artificial devices of the baroque—repeated text, florid extensions of words and phrases, elaborate ensemble writing, duets carried on long-breathed, interwoven melodies—and turn them into the stuff of gripping real-life drama.

The aria that Billy sings as he awaits execution is plaintively beautiful, and the music couldn’t find a more moving advocate than Dwayne Croft. Giving the performance of his career, the American baritone brings a tightly focused, richly hued, rock-solid timbre to the part. Hale and hearty exuberance is there in spades in Act 1, and when Billy loses his innocence in Act 2, Croft is heartbreaking. Lost, inarticulate, and finding himself betrayed by false friend Claggart and perceived mentor Vere, Croft’s Billy suggests the sweaty panic of a boy whose long-held assumptions of the goodness of the world have been crushed in a matter of seconds. If Croft’s transcendent singing of Billy’s final words doesn’t put a lump in your throat, nothing on the lyric stage will.

Vere is a more complex animal. We hear from his own lips that he knows that Claggart is evil and Billy is good, that he believes God acted through an angel to kill a demon. Yet he’s silent during the trial and lets the rule of law—a sailor must be executed if he kills a superior officer—take its course. It’s the only choice he can make given his worldview, which is no less naive than Billy’s, and his actions will come back to haunt him for decades to come. British tenor Robin Leggate plays a pinched, socially awkward captain who keeps things close to the vest. Only the thaw in his austerity when he’s alone clues us in to his inner torment. It’s a direct and believable way to portray the character, but other singers have shown us more of the man’s heart, restless intellect, and spiritual side. (“Starry Vere,” his men call him.) That’s not to slight Leggate’s fine work, which is very much up to the level of Croft’s and Ramey’s, or to minimize his incisive singing, with its unmistakably English blend of blanched tone, nasal edge, and forward placement of the words.

Britten specialist Richard Hickox, meanwhile, conducts a carefully calibrated reading of a difficult score. Sensitive to color, alive to the music’s fluctuating emotional temperature, and unafraid to toughen things up in order to set off the human drama with greater poignancy, his is textbook Britten conducting. The orchestra is clearly on its toes, and it has rarely sounded this good—particularly the pungent, sea-swept brass. Ditto the men’s chorus—this, after all, is an all-male opera about an all-male world—which sings with splendid diction and appropriately oceanic force. The music is very much of a piece with the stage direction, creating ever-increasing tension over the opera’s three-hour span.

It’s a pretty clear sign of how affectingly this Billy Budd has been done that, on opening night, the hanging scene caused a woman behind me to start whimpering softly, like a wounded animal. You don’t get that from your average night at the opera. That comes only from great theater.CP