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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Opera Review: Bloody Deeds in Brooklyn

LoftOpera takes on Britten's The Rape of Lucretia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Detail from Lucretia by Rembrandt.
The chamber operas of Benjamin Britten are works of great  dramatic power, demanding a tight ensemble and a cast that can act as well as sing. All those quantities are present in LoftOpera’s first production of “The Rape of Lucretia," seen Saturday night in a temporary performance space created, seemingly out of thin air at the event space/art gallery 501 Union. This production marks this bold young company’s first staging of a Britten opera and its first show in English.

This is a peculiar chamber opera: a brutal retelling of the rape of a Roman noblewoman by an Etruscan prince. (This incident caused the downfall of the prince's father, the Etruscan tyrant Tarquinius Superbus and the founding of the Roman Republic in 510 B.C.) Britten presents these blood-and-thunder events as a mystery play, framing the action with a male and female narrator that evoke the sub-consciences of the two protagonists. Tenor Michael Kuhn and mezzo Katy Lindhart were strong in these twinned roles, moving in a dream-like state against the raw reality of the opera’s events.

The production (by Laine Rettmer) was radical in its conception, using the deliberately awkward space to present the opera. Instead of taking center stage, Lucretia’s bed was off to the left of the audience, opposite to the chamber orchestra. Singers moved in and out of the long makeshift theater, sometimes in stately, dreamlike fashion, in others with bursts of vital speed. The set, the chairs, and the props did not survive the bloody whirlwind of energy at the heart of this dark opera--many of them were violently destroyed.

As the scene turned to Lucretia’s home, the show incorporated static surveillance cameras and a live on-stage videographer (Alice Millar.) These images (set up by video designer Andrea Merkx) were projected in unsettling fashion along one of the walls, giving the audience options as to where to focus their attention, with the muffled visual textures and muted colors adding to and amplifying the sense of foreboding.

Mezzo-soprano, Kristin Gornstein had to reach down to her lower register for Lucretia’s key contralto notes. However, she caught the drama and fire of the terrified and finally traumatized heroine. This opera is as much a ritual as a dramatic retelling, and she was its priestess.  She presented Lucretia as a blank slate at first, an object of Tarquinius' obsession come to vivid life. She imbued the character with an underlying sense of fatalism and then a steely, wounded dignity. Her final suicide was chilling, stark and bloody.

The feeling of a house under siege from within came to its apex with the scene where Tarquinius steals through the house. The assault on Lucretia herself was stomach-turning to watch--hard for its length and for its intensity. This was a bleak and physical performance as she fought him off again and again. It started offstage in the raked bed but soon the fight carried to the front of the stage, a raw and unsightly struggle that made one meditate on the long history of men’s violence toward women. No quarter was given by either singer, and one wondered whether the blooming mouse on Ms. Gerstein's face was makeup or not.

As Tarquinius, baritone Kevin Wetzel held the stage from his entrance when he happened to smash a plaster bust representing his character's father and his own callow world-view. He sang this ungrateful part with intensity and raw vitality. Bass Adrian Rosas wielded an impressive instrument as Collatinus, Lucretia’s proud husband. Baritone Kyle Oliver was brutish as Junius, who eggs Tarquinius on to his despicable deed and then reaps the benefits by leading the Roman revolt. As Lucretia's two servants, Toby Newman and Melanie Leinbach provided expert ensemble support.

This is Britten’s first chamber opera, an inventive score written for just 13 musicians. Its eerie textures and instrumental combinations (ideas that the composer would return to again in works like The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave) were played with great clarity under the leadership of conductor Dean Buck. Of particular note: the gentle, descending “Good night” ensemble at the end of the first act that braces the audience for the horror to come, and Brittens use of a small harsh-voiced gong that punctuated these events and set up the apocalyptic climax.

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