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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Rape of Lucretia’

The same team responsible for the stunning "La

Triaviata" that opened the Opera Festival of New Jersey season

designed the concluding opera for the season, Benjamin Britten’s "The

Rape of Lucretia." Programming the 1946 work was a bold move in

a musical world where financially timid managements lean toward guaranteed

box office success. In presenting the Britten work OFNJ aligned itself

with those seeking the expansion of operatic offerings, rather than

with those content to view opera as a species of museum.

In their commendable risk-taking OFNJ chose a hazardous vehicle. Britten’s

score challenges the skill and imagination of both performers and

designers.

The core of the action derives from events said to have taken place

about 500 B.C. Three carousing Roman commanders — Collatinus,

Prince Tarquinius, and Junius — wonder about the faithfulness

of the wives in their circle. They find that Lucretia, the wife of

Collatinus, is the only loyal spouse. Tarquinius rides his horse to

her home, accepts her hospitality, and rapes her. Distraught, Lucretia

plans to kill herself. The devoted Collatinus is unable to persuade

her that since she did not willingly participate, she is guiltless.

Lucretia commits suicide.

From Livy in the first century to Rousseau in the 18th, the story

has reappeared in western Europe. Ovid, Chaucer, Machiavelli, and

Shakespeare have recounted it. Titian painted Lucretia struggling

against Tarquinius. The emphasis has varied. Some (Shakespeare, for

instance) have limited themselves to the bare bones story. Some (Livy)

have seen Lucretia’s tragedy as the catalyst that changed Rome from

empire to republic. Britten follows neither of these avenues.

Although the simplest version of the tale, with its mix of innocence,

treachery, and violence, is eminently suitable as an operatic plot,

Britten burdens it with accretions. His libretto is Ronald Duncan’s

verse setting of Andre Obey’s 1931 prose account of the story. Shunning

simplicity, the 1946 opera adds a contemporary couple — calling

them a Male Chorus and a Female Chorus — who comment on the action,

placing it in a Christian context. They convert pagan history into

a parable of redemption, without clarifying whether only Lucretia

is to be forgiven, or whether both Tarquinius and Lucretia are saved.

The Christian overlay is a poor fit with the Roman story. It made

me wish for a plot where the bad guys get what they deserve.

There are further problems. The libretto is wordy. The eye movement

required to shift from overhead titles to stage action was as strenuous

as watching a five-set tennis match at Wimbledon. In addition, the

text, while poetic, is opaque and difficult to grasp in the time available;

we need leisure in order to mull over such remarks as, "The pity

is that sin has so much grace; it moves like virtue."

And yet much was commendable about this musically meticulous

presentation, a co-production with Opera de Montreal. David Agler

saw to the clean performance of a chamber orchestra with quirky and

interestingly astringent instrumentation. The singing was accurate

and intense. The Male Chorus (Jeffrey Picon) and the Female Chorus

(Joslin Romphf), assigned to do the heavy vocal lifting in the opera,

were unflagging. Lucretia (Phyllis Pancella), Collatinus (Scott Altman),

Prince Tarquinius (David Adam Moore), and Junius (Andrew Krikawa)

sang accurately and clearly. Bianca (Lauren Curnow) and the sweet

Lucia (Thea Tullman) held their own as Lucretia’s minions.

Director Renaud Doucet and designer Andre Barbe have created a visually

compelling production. Large video projections, sometimes jagged abstractions,

sometimes sensual close-ups of people, and at the climax tumbling

bricks, helped create an unsettling mood. Much of the Roman action

of 2,500 years ago took place behind gauzy white curtains that furnished

a visual counterpart of historical distance.

The third and final production of the OFNJ season, the "Rape of

Lucretia," presented for just three performances, was a worthy

component in a well-balanced survey of the repertory. Beside "The

Barber of Seville," an 1816 comedy, and the romantic "La Traviata"

of 1853, it brought a mid-20th century esthetic into the mix. Significantly,

New York City Opera has included all three works in its 2002-’03 season

of 17 productions. At City Opera, Albert Sherman, who directed the

OFNJ "Barber," directs once more, and David Agler, artistic

director at OFNJ, will conduct.

"The Rape of Lucretia" is essentially a mood piece, stark,

ominous, and gloomy. Britten’s alterations of the basic story add

up to a McMansion of an opera, short on dramatic tension, psychological

complexity, and moral conflict. The OFNJ team should be commended

for its efforts; its musicians and designers did everything they could

to tame the work’s problems. They were an irresistible force; but

they may have been confronting an immovable object.

— Elaine Strauss

The Rape of Lucretia, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. Pre-performance

lecture at 12:45 p.m. $24 to $82. Sunday, July 21, 2 p.m.


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