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Rape of Lucretia, Peabody Chamber Opera

Leah Kaye Serr and David Krohn in The Rape of Lucretia, Peabody Chamber Opera, photo by Jesse M. Hellman
Leah Kaye Serr and David Krohn in The Rape of Lucretia,
Peabody Chamber Opera, photo by Jesse M. Hellman
We've been on a Britten binge lately here at Ionarts, and the chance to hear a live production of The Rape of Lucretia was most welcome. Just last month, I reviewed a DVD of this opera, and now Peabody Chamber Opera has mounted it in a fine production at Baltimore Theater Project. This is precisely the sort of opera that strong collegiate opera companies should be producing, rather than yet another mediocre staging of the old chestnuts. All three performances were sold out in advance.

Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan used as his main source a modern French play, André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrèce (adapted separately in English by Thornton Wilder). Obey certainly knew the Shakespeare poem on the story, The Rape of Lucrece, and the ultimate source, the first book of Livy's Ab urbe condita. At this point in the early history of Rome, the city was still under the control of Etruscan overlords. Sextus Tarquinius, the Etruscan Prince of Rome, is overcome with lust when he hears the story of Lucretia, the virtuous Roman wife of Collatinus. He gains entrance to her house, when Lucretia receives him honorably as a guest, and in the night rapes her. Lucretia calls upon her father and husband, reveals her shame, makes them swear to avenge her against her attacker, and then takes her own life with a dagger to spare her family the shame of her loss. Livy claims that Brutus stirred up hatred of the Etruscan rulers among the Romans by repeating Lucretia's story, helping to turn the tide of Roman hatred toward civil war. The legend of proud, independent Rome is born.

The opera takes place in wartime and concerns soldiers away from home and a wife left behind in charge of the household. As shown again by recent events, war sometimes brings out the worst in soldiers, even in how they interact with innocent civilians unfortunate enough to be in proximity to war. Roger Brunyate's production here sets the scene in a bunker, evoked by Kel Millionie's crumbling square concrete columns, draped with barbed wire, and military cot. Khaki uniforms for the soldiers, co-designed by Alexandra Ebright, and a camouflage duffel bag subtly suggest the trappings of the U.S. Army.

Leah Kaye Serr, Ruth Carver, and Sarah Hershman in The Rape of Lucretia, Peabody Chamber Opera, photo by Jesse M. Hellman
Leah Kaye Serr, Ruth Carver, and Sarah Hershman in The Rape of Lucretia, Peabody Chamber Opera, photo by Jesse M. Hellman
The male and female choruses -- roles that narrate, intersecting the action without really being part of it -- are cast as embedded journalists, trying to write about the horror of what they see in the field with the troops. They sometimes type the lyrical words of Ronald Duncan's libretto into a laptop, rediscovering fervent faith in Christ as a coping mechanism. (Male and female chaplains, or even a priest and nun serving in the field, may have captured the religious aspect better, but casting the choruses as journalists made the narration more natural. A doctor and nurse would have recalled M*A*S*H too much.) That the choruses are depicted here as husband and wife reinforces the opera's polarization of male and female, heightened by Britten in the score, with soft music dominated by the harp (excellent playing from harpist Marissa Knaub) for the scenes featuring Lucretia and her two servants, which the sharper, percussive music of Tarquinius's horse ride to her house tramples.

The intimate space of Baltimore Theater Project is perfectly suited to the voices in this strong collegiate cast, some larger than others. Leah Kaye Serr was lovely and vocally incisive as Lucretia, convincing as she lost her mind after the rape scene. The tall, blond-haired David Krohn was a refined and robust Tarquinius. Jeffrey Tarr, an alumnus of the Peabody Opera program invited back for this production, brought his focused bass sound to the role of Collatinus, sometimes overwhelming. As the choruses, Mary Catherine Moroney was more present than Kyle Malone. Lyric soprano Sarah Hershman had a light, pretty sound as Lucia, the high-flying role of Lucretia's maidservant. All cast members created believable characters in this soundly directed staging. JoAnn Kulesza conducted a generally good performance from the orchestra, seated at the back of the performing space behind a black scrim.

Peabody Chamber Opera's next production this season, Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, is scheduled for March 7 to 10, a coproduction with Temple University. Also, we hear tell that Lorin Maazel will lead a production of The Rape of Lucretia with his Châteauville Foundation this April. Hopefully, the group will bring the opera to the Terrace Theater.

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