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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
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
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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