If the lead singers were a variable lot at Friday's premiere, the night was still a success because the real stars of the show—the conductor, the chorus and the set—all performed magnificently.
That set, designed by William Dudley for the 1978 John Dexter production, is a cutaway depiction against a black background of the H.M.S. Indomitable, a British gunship sailing toward battle with the French in 1797. When the action begins, we're on the main deck, but as scenes change, the ship seamlessly shifts and grows before our eyes, taking us down to the captain's cabin and the sailors' berths and even expanding to reveal seven levels at once.
In adapting Herman Melville's novella, Britten and his librettists—E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier—invented a prologue and epilogue in which Captain Vere, now an old man, reflects on the events of the story. In brief, a good-natured young foretopman, Billy Budd, is falsely accused by the master-at-arms, John Claggart, of fomenting mutiny. Tongue-tied, Billy strikes Claggart dead, and Vere—despite his conviction that Billy is innocent—feels he has no choice but to see him hanged.
The role of the captain (originally written for Britten's life partner, Peter Pears) was taken in this revival by tenor John Daszak in his Met debut. He sang with a bright, pungent tone and notably crisp diction, though his sound occasionally turned strident on high notes. Dramatically, he was persuasive both as an old man tormented by guilt and as an embattled captain facing an impossible choice.
Baritone Nathan Gunn performed the title role, looking the epitome of Melville's handsome sailor and acting with youthful vigor. He sang sweetly in quiet moments like "Billy in the Darbies," his haunting aria on the eve of execution, but much of the time one longed for a more powerful sound.
Bass James Morris has virtually owned the role of Claggart at the Met, but his voice has lost strength, especially at the low end. He etched a subdued portrait of a corrupt soul who cannot tolerate the presence of unalloyed goodness in the world.
There were many strong contributions from the all-male cast, starting with the chorus, whose role in this opera is vital. The fine trio of officers consisted of baritone Dwayne Croft—a former Billy himself—and bass-baritones Kyle Ketelson and the debuting Ryan McKinny. Tenor Keith Jameson was impressive as the Novice, the weak-willed sailor who does Claggart's dirty work.
David Robertson, making a too-infrequent appearance, conducted the Met orchestra in an energetic and moving performance of Britten's score, which is filled with surging melodic themes amid its spiky dissonances.