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SCRUTINY | Rape of Lucretia A Worthwhile Return To Opera At Toronto Summer Music

By Joshua Denenberg on July 23, 2016

Rape of Lucretia: (Front) Emma Char, Beste Kalender (Photo: Jorge Chaves)
Rape of Lucretia: (Front) Emma Char, Beste Kalender (Photo: Jorge Chaves)

Toronto Summer Music Festival: The Rape of Lucretia; Joel Ivany (Artistic Director), Topher Mokrzewski (Music Director), Anna Theodosakis (Stage Director). The Winter Garden Theatre. Friday, July 22.

The Rape of Lucretia is a troublesome opera by Benjamin Britten. It is in the shadow of Peter Grimes, a far more expansive opera in scope dramatically and musically. Alas, this is an unfair comparison since Rape of Lucretia has a mere twenty performers versus Grimes’ comparatively monstrous ensemble and cast. More problematic is Lucretia’s plot. It hinges on the idea of Christian redemption in spite of the title character’s rape, which today seems both backward and naive. Especially in a “post-Cosby” world.

Because of this, the opera has failed to enter the standard repertoire, which is a shame. It is hard to deny that there is inherent poetry in Ronald Duncan’s libretto. There are even brilliant moments of tragic irony. The most obvious of which is when Lucretia’s maids sing of a lovely morning who are oblivious of what had happened one scene earlier. But then there are moments where the libretto seems too tied to its origin as a Roman history. The subplot, of the character Junius singing about the oppressive Etruscan regime, seems out of place. It only serves to make Junius a secondary villain, as an opportunist who is seizing the moment to gain power in the wake of Lucretia’s rape.

Britten’s score is anything but subtle, but perhaps that’s not necessary here. The music conveys a sense of unease and foreboding. Even the music accompanying an innocuous task such as wishing each other a “good night” sounds uneasy, signalling all is not well. This is a classic Roman history and it is unlikely that the audience will be unaware of what will happen. Britten’s music does a perfect job of conveying the story, adding dramatic umph, and giving the occasional gorgeous moments, particularly the prolonged oboe solo in the final scene.

(Photo: Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity)
(Photo: Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity)

A benefit chamber opera has over a full-sized opera is the ability to create a sense of intimacy. This production, made in conjunction with the Banff Centre, Against the Grain Theatre, and the COC, is largely successful because of this. The claustrophobic staging and minimalist design play to this strength. Both the singers and musicians share one stage, creating an atmosphere of small theatre. It feels like being told a story rather than witnessing operatic spectacle. Even the lighting, which is effective, never intrudes or supersedes this element of intimacy.

The direction and performance of the two members of the chorus, Owen McCausland and Chelsea Rus, deserve particular credit. Functioning as the opera’s narrators, they move fluidly around the ensemble and characters. They interact with one another attempting to come to terms with the unfolding tragedy. This is a refreshing alternative to a chorus that statically reciting the story and is successful in creating added action and drama even when there may be little of either as there are several moments of near static energy. This is especially impressive considering we were informed shortly before the production that McCausland was sick, whose melodramatic performance subverts the ideal of male stoicism.

Christopher Mokrzewski in the orchestra pit (Photo: Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity)
Christopher Mokrzewski in the orchestra pit (Photo: Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity)

The rest of the cast sung well, although perhaps the chemistry was not quite as strongly conceived .The trio of female characters —Emma Char as Lucretia, Beste Kalender as Bianca, and Ellen McAteer as Lucia–felt subdued next to their male opposites — Jasper Leever as Collatinus, Peter Rolfe Dauz as Junius, and Iain MacNeil as Tarquinius. But then again, it’s perhaps easier to generate a group dynamic when in a drunken stupor as opposed to arranging flowers.

But, there were still several questionable directorial decisions that serve as distractions. In particular, the occasional moments of comic relief (whether intentional or not) seem dissonant next to the tone of both Britten’s music and the starkness of the stage. The previously mentioned “goodnight” scene, which closes act one, elicited laughs when it shouldn’t have (which was perhaps unintentional). In the opening scene, the belches from the drunken male characters distract from the severe oration by the chorus. Although, this may have been an ill-conceived attempt at masculine bravado. It’s moments like these that, unfortunately, dispel what should have been more immersive.

The orchestra also performed well. Having the orchestra on stage gave an extra level of appreciation as the musical director, Topher Mokrzewski, doubled as conductor and pianist. Although a trope Britten reuses, the useage of piano as solo accompaniment is an evocative technique, transporting you off the opera stage and into a parlour. And being able to see the pianist only adds to this dynamic.

Minor quips aside, the return of opera to the Toronto Summer Music festival is a welcome (re)addition. It cannot be understated the level of gumption and risk to stage an opera like this, which meritorious in of itself.


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