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12.1.06

Portland Opera, Rape of Lucretia

Portland Opera, in Oregon, has created a new young artists program called the Portland Opera Studio Artists. Last month, the group gave a staged performance of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, featuring the young singers, from December 7 to 17. Angela Allen reviewed the opera (Intimate interpretation - Portland Opera stages 'Rape of Lucretia', December 9) for the Clark County (Washington) Columbian:

For all the experimentation, "The Rape of Lucretia" left a first-night audience assured that the chamber opera with big themes and a tragic ending landed in the perfect venue, even with several unobtrusive TV monitors that enabled the cast to communicate with the upstairs conductor, San Francisco-based Donato Cabrera. With a 13-piece orchestra playing in a loft above the raised stage, and a cast of eight young singers, small proved beautiful, intense and intimate. Even passionate opera fans complain that many of the art form's celebrated stages -- New York City's grandiose 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera most obviously -- are too vast for an audience to fully embrace a piece's music and drama. [...]

If not suited to a massive stage, "Lucretia" fit like a velvet glove into the new 176-seat Portland Opera Studio at the opera complex in southeast Portland. With a spare stage surrounded by seats on three sides, the theater allowed up-close and personal moments for the audience. It was moving to see the tears in Lucretia's (mezzo Kendra Harrington) eyes and sweat on the brow of her husband, Collantinus (bass Aaron Theno), as she details her shame in the aftermath of her rape by Tarquinious, the bad boy prince of Rome, sung by baritone Jonathan Lasch.
David Stabler reviewed the opera ('Lucretia' a successful experiment, December 11) for The Oregonian:
Presenting "Lucretia" is a revealing move. It shows that Mattaliano is not a panderer, but instead, a man who seems to believe that if he likes something and is stirred by it, others will be, too. It also shows a company eager to become more agile, more culturally curious and less satisfied playing the role of dusty archivist. "Lucretia" is no museum piece, but a morality opera with music that is better -- more penetrating psychologically, more specific in revealing character -- than its words. It was an initial success in 1946, with the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier in the title role, but it took another 20 years to gain recognition as a masterpiece. Early judgments called it "fleshless" and its librettist, Ronald Duncan, lacking "any idea of drama whatsoever."

Even today, the final scene troubles people with its blunt Christian message. If you pay attention only to the words, then, yes, the ending is awkward. After witnessing Lucretia's degradation, the Female Chorus asks, is suffering all there is? Are we doomed to repeat violence generation after generation? Remember, Britten was writing this immediately after World War II. He was unhappy with the libretto's original harsh conclusion of suicide. He asked Duncan for some Christian reassurance and the Male Chorus supplies it: Jesus Christ is our hope. "He is all!"
There are two benefits, to the young singers who get to sing in a full staged opera and to the audience who get to hear a lesser-known opera. Since all seven performances sold out (the hall seats fewer than 200 people), I think this sort of experimental arrangement is financially viable, too.

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