The setup: After the storm and fury of Peter Grimes (1945), whose sea-tossed music and psychologically truthful and damaged characters were heralded as a new era in English opera, composer Benjamin Britten, for his next stage work, went toward the simple but elegant. "I am keen to develop a new art form (the chamber-opera or what you will)," he wrote during preliminary discussions with librettist Ronald Duncan, "which will stand beside the grand opera as the quartet stands beside the orchestra. I hope to write many works for it." He did, most successfully. This is his first in that smaller genre, and some say his best. Houston Grand Opera, under sensitive maestro Rory Macdonald and in a particularly affecting and handsome production conceived by director Arin Arbus, shows its mastery of Britten with this most affecting interpretation.
The execution: Based upon the stories from ancient Roman historian Livy and poet Ovid, the epic poem from a youthful Shakespeare and the French play by André Obey (1931), the operatic version of The Rape of Lucretia (1946) is ripe with contradictions. It is a chamber opera full of grand passion, introspection and a panoply of musical effects that exquisitely portray bullfrogs and crickets (a sliding bass and harp), a frenzied midnight ride on horseback, and the eponymous title scene, yet all set to a precious, inflated libretto that blabbers away like a virginal schoolmarm caught with her knickers down. Tacked on without grace or good dramatic sense is a Christian message about suffering that has very little to do with the dastardly rape of moral Lucretia, nor how we, in our contemporary world, might interpret such ancient sins.
That the opera succeeds wildly at all is because of Britten's magnificently theatrical music, lyrical and subtly beautiful no matter the mood. He's a master at orchestration, and the 14 musicians from Houston Grand Opera's skilled orchestra, playing 18 instruments, are whipped into sounding like a contingent from Richard Strauss. Then, in abrupt change, Britten scores for solo piano, and with a few chromatic chords conveys the vastness of the human heart. It's a rare composer who can perform these musical feats with such dexterity and nuance. It's showoffy and deeply felt at the same time.
Lucretia (the honey-toned mezzo Michelle DeYoung), wife of Roman general Collatinus (expressive bass Ryan McKinny), is the paragon of goodness, a model wife, the epitome of Roman grace and elegance. Unlike the women of Rome, now under the despotic rule of Etruscan tyrant Prince Tarquinius (silky baritone Jacques Imbrailo), she is neither debauched nor of easy virtue. Ambitious fellow general Junius (smooth baritone Joshua Hopkins), humiliated over the unfaithfulness of his own wife, insinuates the idea into a drunken Tarquinius to test Lucretia's faithfulness. He madly rushes to Rome. At the house of Collatinus, spinning and folding linen, old nurse Bianca (the wonderfully warm mezzo Judith Forst) reminisces, while innocent Lucia (dewy soprano Lauren Snouffer) dreams of a first love. Set to an insistent drum beat, evil Tarquinius slinks through the house into Lucretia's bedroom. In a most insidious lullaby, he makes his intentions known. He kisses her awake to the jolting crack of a whip. The rape occurs behind tastefully dropped drapery, but its thrusting violence is unmistakably conveyed by Britten's propulsive, jagged music.
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In reference to classical drama, Duncan gives us two Choruses, Male (Anthony Dean Griffey) and Female (Leah Crocetto), who comment throughout on the characters and their motivation, or give us dry history lessons to set the scene. They wheedle their thoughts into the actors, like secondhand fate, or stand off to one side and become critical harpies. As the drama deepens, they become emotionally involved, until they're paralyzed by the atrocious actions of Tarquinius and helpless to save Lucretia. That's when the Jesus idea hits them -- and us -- hard. The opera could do without the blatant moral lesson. Fortunately, this doesn't last long, until Britten's aural fantasies take over and utterly beguile.
This is one of HGO's most picturesque productions, simplicity itself. As designed by Jean-Guy Lecat, a brick archway and ruined pillars exude classicism, as do the diaphanous Pompeiian costumes by Anita Yavich and the expressive, shifting lighting from Michael James Clark. When Lucretia enters after the night's terrible torment, Britten gives her a radiantly Baroque theme of calm grandeur, like a kiss to Purcell. The light morphs from caressing morning amber to stark white, as if there's no escape from the harsh light of confession.
The verdict: This is one of Britten's rarely performed operas, yet one of his most accessible. I don't know, but perhaps the brash title puts people off. The work is intelligent and adult, full of wondrous musical passages that race, frolic, and then deeply calm and move. While the libretto trips over itself with unnecessary pomp, it has insights that are fashioned out of poetry that Shakespeare would wink at in appreciation. For a "modern" opera (from 1946!), Rape has timelessness on its side. Full of life, it's a classic, made more so by the appreciative craftsmen at HGO.
Benjamin Britten's lyric, passionate tale of poor Lucretia plays February 5, 7, 9 and 11 at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $25-$298.