THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA
November 20, 2013
At this latest night of opera at the downtown nightclub Le Poisson Rouge (having hosted previous engagements by the Met and Gotham Chamber Opera), the venue and Opera at Rutgers celebrated Benjamin Britten’s centenary with a performance of the composer’s 1946 opera The Rape of Lucretia.
Having used a Maupassant story as the basis for his first chamber opera Albert Herring, Britten returned to French source material for his second, in adapting André Obey’s play Le viol de Lucrèce. Alongside librettist Ronald Duncan, Britten documents the rape of the noblewoman Lucretia by Tarquinius, a Roman prince.
What sets this piece apart from other Britten operas is how direct it is, both in terms of music, with its small, eight-piece ensemble, and in exploration of its themes. Loss of innocence is one of Britten’s foremost preoccupations – a loss typically brought on by acts of violence. Where elsewhere the composer tends to obfuscate the nature of these acts – Britten may be accused of finding ambiguity in of itself interesting – he avoids this vagueness in The Rape of Lucretia. Instead of spending time obscuring Tarquinius’ culpability, Britten hones in on the psychology of the act and its fallout.
Rutgers’ performance is the second college production of this opera in New York City this year, with Mannes Opera having mounted the piece at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse last April. This production was more low-key – due to LPR’s small nightclub stage, the set just consisted of a table and a couple of Roman columns. These constraints may have also led to conductor Franklin Porath using an electric keyboard throughout the piece. This was a shame, as the piano is one of the more expressive instruments in the chamber opera, and the keyboard detracted from the experience. Otherwise, the ensemble played well, if muted – some of the pathos of Britten’s writing, especially for the strings, missed the mark.
Britten has the opera’s narration handled by two roles, the Male and Female Choruses. Here, it was the Female Chorus, played by Nadine Robinson, who outshone her colleagues both in all aspects of performance. Although her role is less physically demanding than many of others – she moved and expressed herself with sensitivity and control.
In the end, it was a good college performance of a chamber opera that deserves our attention. Britten wrote small-scale works in order to get opera ‘out of the opera house,’ and it is good to see more modest companies take advantage of this manageable yet meticulous piece.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Geoffrey Lokke