To talk about production values at the Metropolitan Opera these days is to insert oneself squarely in the middle of an ongoing debate about the organization’s somewhat troubled artistic vision. More than a few critics—and audience members—have found fault with director-driven creations commissioned for the stage. So it’s an auspicious time for the house to revive John Dexter’s lauded staging of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, based on the Melville novella, which opens Friday 4 for an all-too-short three-performance run. Ever since Harold Schonberg praised the production at its premiere in 1978, its star has been William Dudley’s set of the HMS Indomitable: an authentic-looking vessel that’s both physically and psychologically confining, in which the all-male crew sails to its tragic fate.
The last time Britten’s opera, with a libretto by E.M. Forster, was staged here, a twentysomething Nathan Gunn’s role consisted of carting a flogged shipmate onstage as the vaguely identified Novice’s Friend. Now, Gunn, whose portrayal of Melville’s titular naive foretopman has won raves elsewhere (thanks in part to hunky shirtless photos from a 2004 San Francisco portrayal), takes on the part for the first time in New York. James Morris all but owns the role of Budd’s antagonist, the evil master-at-arms John Claggart, having played the part in 36 of the opera’s 44 stagings at the Met. English tenor John Daszak makes his house debut as the morally conflicted Captain Vere, and exacting conductor David Robertson returns to the pit for the first time in four years.—Amanda Angel