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Britten's 'Lucretia' at Wolf Trap

J’Nai Bridges (Lucretia, on right in blue) and River Rogers (Child) in The Rape of Lucretia (photo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera)
With many operas produced by Wolf Trap Opera Company, it is a matter of shoehorning the work into the confines of the Barns and its tiny orchestra pit. Benjamin Britten's chamber operas, a series of works for small theaters, are perfectly suited to the venue. The first of them, The Rape of Lucretia, opens the summer season at Wolf Trap, seen in its opening night on Friday. All the major elements of staging, casting, and musical performance came together admirably, in a production that impressed in many ways, while not ultimately solving the work's basic dramatic problems. (Spoilers to follow.)

As noted in my preview article, Mary Beard discusses the story of Lucretia in some detail in her informative book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The events, which supposedly took place in the sixth century B.C., were not recorded by Livy in Ab urbe condita until the first century B.C. The virtuous Lucretia, wife of the Roman nobleman Collatinus, was raped by Tarquinius Sextus, the son of the last Etruscan king to rule Rome. Not able to suffer the shame, she commits suicide, and Collatinus and his friend, Junius Brutus, brandish the bloody knife as they rally the Romans to rise up and overthrow the Tarquins. Not coincidentally, Collatinus and Brutus (the ancestor of the Brutus who took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar) are elected the first consuls of the new Roman republic.

Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges brought dignity and a strong vocal presence to the title role, equal parts virginal lightness and tragic weight. In the wonderful women's ensemble scenes, which are the best parts of this opera, she was supported by the flighty high soprano of Amy Owens as Lucia and the steady maternal sound of Sarah Larsen as Bianca, her nurse. Will Liverman captured the transformation of Tarquinius from patrician soldier into bestial attacker, and Shea Owens stepped into the role of Junius (Brutus) effectively on only a week's notice. Christian Zaremba had the largest sound, just slightly unfocused here and there, as Collatinus, tall and noble of bearing. The framing of the story in Christian terms is an unfortunate relic of librettist Ronald Duncan's choice of source, André Obey's modern French play Le Viol de Lucrèce. Here, the Male Chorus, sung with moral force by tenor Brenton Ryan, and Female Chorus of powerhouse soprano Kerriann Otaño related the story to each other as part of what seemed like a confession, due to Kara Harmon's costuming of the characters as Catholic priest and modern lay woman.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott and Anne Midgette, A powerful opera about a horrible subject (Washington Post, June 12)
Louisa Muller's staging was simple and dramatically effective, with Erhard Rom's set evoking the marble and rusticated stone of a Roman setting, while the costumes of the soldiers suggested a modern American present. The rotating set platform, a first in Barns history, alternated between an outdoor scene with a staircase and an interior room, put to most effective use during the disturbing rape scene, where stagehands rotated the set at a dizzying rate. (The company asked counselors from the Fairfax County Rape Crisis Center to be on hand in the lobby, in case audience members had traumatic memories triggered by the story.) Craig Kier, whom we last saw at the podium in the University of Maryland production of Marc Blitzstein's Regina, again did not seem to have enough control over balances, with the sound of both singers and orchestra becoming overbearing at times.

Two aspects of Muller's directorial concept went unexplained until the final scene. She has added a supernumerary character, the daughter of Lucretia, played by the adorable and affecting River Rogers. Adding characters without any lines to a libretto that does not include them is a perilous business, as eventually a viewer will wonder why a major character is unable to speak. One also wonders why the Female Chorus, an angry woman with a nose ring, a smoking habit, and issues to resolve, is going to confession with the Male Chorus. In the final scene, Muller seems to want us to understand -- because the girl takes her dead mother's necklace, the same one around the neck of the Female Chorus -- that the Female Chorus is the daughter of the raped woman, all grown up.

This production runs through June 18, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

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