Another take on The Rape of Lucretia

The Toronto Summer Music Festival continued last night with a one off performance of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at The Winter Gardens, the upstairs part of the Elgin Theatre that I had never before been in.  The production originated in a Banff Centre/Against the Grain/COC joint project directed by Paul Curran but was recreated here in semi-staged form by Anna Theodosakis.  It was on the “quite close to staged” end of the spectrum so, although the band was on stage behind the action and there was no scenery or curtain it came off as much more than a concert in costume.

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It’s an interesting production.  My feelings about the piece and the role that a certain kind of Christian sentimentality coupled with a good deal of sexism are, at this point, hardly a secret but I was intrigued by how this production dealt with them.  The cloying religiosity is not entirely avoided (I think Curran tried – He’s said to have described the last scene as “bullshit”) but it’s played down by the way in which the production subverts the traditional roles of the Male and Female Chorus.  She, dressed and acting as if she has just read a 1980s style guide for female CEOs, challenges the much less sharply dressed Male Chorus, verbally and physically, at every turn and his final statement of the redemptive power of Christ comes off less as smug mansplaining than as an agonised attempt to explain away what might not be explainable.  Maybe, after all, “It is all”.  All in all, clever and thought provoking.

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The drama itself gets a pretty crisp and dynamic treatment.  The men are costumed as Americanish c.1940s military and jackets and caps only come into play when there are ladies present.  Otherwise it’s tight, physical and right on the edge of violence when the guys are together.  The girls, in sort of timeless smocks, have a harder time generating dramatic interest (flower arranging inherently less dramatic than drunken brawling) though they do a neat job of portraying the crone/matron/maid triad with carefully calculated degrees of maturity from all three.  The confrontation between Tarquinius and Lucretia is convincing though the violence of its conclusion is perhaps somewhat underplayed.  The Collatinus/Lucretia interaction by contrast seems to play up the pointlessness and maybe that’s made more emphatic by the relative underplaying of the earlier scene.  The “Etruscans Go Home” scene seems curiously out of place here.  There’s little else in the production to create any real sense that Tarquinius is “other” and representative of “The Other”.  But, all in all, it works rather well and it kept me more engaged that I expected to be throughout.

The individual performances were uniformly good.  Owen McAusland (announced as “under the weather” though one would not have known) sang stylishly and clearly and was believable as the slightly dishevelled male chorus.  Chelsea Rus, maybe not as natural a Britten stylist as Owen, nonetheless impressed as the bustling, sparky female chorus.  Her diction was excellent too which was especially important as there were no surtitles and text matters in this piece.  To be fair, that was a strength across the board with the words going west only in one or two of the ensembles.  Ian MacNeil was a physically and vocally impressive Tarquinius; definitely both one of the boys and a ladies man.  Lucia’s infatuation with him and Lucretia’s sense of threat both made perfect sense.  Jasper Leever seems made to play a character like Collatinus; tall, vocally powerful and a bit physically stiff (even with Lucretia) he had the “noble Roman” persona pat.  If anybody needs to cast Marcus Junius Brutus or Gaius Mucius Scaevola in an opera he’s your man.  Peter Rolfe Dauz’ Junius was solidly sung but in this production Junius doesn’t really have much purpose and so becomes a bit anonymous.  Emma Char’s Lucretia was pretty decent; well sung and convincing in her confrontation with Tarquinius though she didn’t quite convey the intensity that alone would explain why she persists in self-destruction.  Ellen McAteer managed to make Lucia genuinely youthful and impetuous and Beste Kalender’s rich tone and slightly exotic English really made Bianca into a rounded character.

There was (Joy be unconfined) Britten’s full 13 piece orchestra on stage.  This is a wonderful score and piano accompaniment really doesn’t do it justice.  Here under the baton of Topher Mokrzewski, who doubled (baton in mouth) on piano, we got to hear the beauty and subtlety of the instrumentation.  Britten really writes for the text.  One appreciates the way the instrumentation thins out when the words really matter or where, for the same reason, an ensemble sings in unison.  It probably helped too that the band was at the back of the stage allowing the voices to be a little further forward.  In any event it worked and the orchestra was managed to produce both real beauty and fine support for the singers.

Every time I see this piece I ask myself why anybody still does it, given its obvious flaws, but last night provided some answers.  The music is fantastic and, if one can find an even half way reasonable way of handling the Male Chorus, there’s drama there too.  Last night turned out to be a rather fine evening at the theatre.

Photo credit: Jorge Chaves.

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