Opera Brittenica debuts with a riveting “Rape of Lucretia”

October 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

“The Rape of Lucretia” by Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1570-1625)

“Sin has so much grace it moves like virtue,” intones the male chorus in Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.  

The opera, heard in Opera Brittenica’s inaugural production Friday night at the YMCA Theater in Cambridge, has a lingering paradox. Themes of Christian forgiveness and salvation, particular interests of Britten’s, mesh with a story about raw sexual conquest, shame, and the death of an innocent victim.

It can be difficult material for the stage, but the young, fresh-faced cast of Opera Brittenica gave a charismatic and visceral production that left the audience in the small theater awed and wanting more.

Rape of Lucretia (1946), an opera scored for eight singers and chamber orchestra, did not achieve the success of Britten’s previous opera, Peter Grimes, in part, due to the grim story. Based on André Obey’s play, The Viol de Lucretia (1931), itself drawn from Roman legend, the opera tells of Tarquinius, the sex-craving prince of Rome. Driven by lust for Lucretia, chaste wife of the Roman consul Collatinus, he rides into the city in search of what he sees as his most worthy sexual conquest. Lucretia, driven mad with shame after being raped, commits suicide. Collatinus, for his part in this strained story, is a paragon of virtue. Attempting to console his distraught wife before she plunges a dagger into her violated area, he tells her that all can be forgiven.

But the religious themes of the opera’s epilogue, which Britten injected into Ronald Duncan’s original libretto, sound as preachy and contrived now as they did when the work premiered almost seventy years ago. In the conclusion, the narrators, the male and female choruses (each performed by a soloist), wonder hopelessly about the nature of existence. Base emotions, sexual conquest, needless suicide of an innocent women, is this all there is?, asks the female. “It is not all,” the male answers. “He has our sin and carries all. Christ, He is all.”

The work’s shortcomings, of course, are no fault of the Opera Brittenica’s production team, who presented a vivid staging. Anita Shriver’s set design was effective in its simplicity. White chairs, purple linen (for the women’s spinning scene in Act 1), flower pedals (for the final scene in the garden), and backdrop of cloth sheets cut to different lengths made imaginative use of the space. Giselle Ty’s enterprising stage direction and Hazel Lever’s vigorous choreography enabled the small cast to shine as actors.

The singing was especially luminous. Mezzo soprano Sophie Michaux’s velvety soprano captured the full emotional range of the opera’s title character. Her singing gave the character angelic presence in the first Act (Her costume of white dress and golden wings solidified the image). With anguished tones, she captured Lucretia’s madness and shame in the gut-wrenching aftermath of her rape. She crawled about the stage whimpering and quivering, her singing never losing focus and power.

As Tarquinius, baritone Adrian Rosales struck an appropriately arrogant and threatening presence. His vibrant voice and keen acting made palpable the most sinister scenes in the opera.  He chased the frightened Lucretia all around the stage, pinning her to the wall, his hands groping her body as well as his own. The rape scene that followed was simply terrifying.

In the chorus roles, tenor Jonathan Price and soprano Amal El-Shrafi each sang with clear diction and a resonance that filled the intimate theater.

RaShaun Campbell, as Collatinus, sang with robust, rich baritone voice. Zachary Ballard’s clarion baritone well suited the role of the Roman, Junius. Soprano Katelyn Parker Bray, as Lucretia’s servant girl Lucia, gave glossy and agile renderings of the opera’s more florid vocal lines. Mezzo soprano Stephanie Benkert sang with warm tone in the role of Bianca, Lucretia’s protective chief servant.

Britten’s score makes use of some beguiling orchestral colors, ranging from ethereal winds and string clusters, hard-driving percussive rhythms, and dense pillars of sound. In the pit, situated to the right of the stage, the young conductor Geoffrey Pope guided the thirteen-member orchestra with energy and flair. Their playing fared best in Act 1. Some unfocused intonation crept into the ensemble in final act, and the musicians, unfortunately, weren’t able to smooth it out by opera’s end.

But if future performances are as bold and powerful as this inaugural performance, Opera Brittenica has a bright future.

Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday at the YMCA Theater, Cambridge. operabrittenica.com 

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