The Boston Conservatory's Opera Program brought Benjamin Britten's grim chamber opera, "The Rape of Lucretia," to the stage for their spring production. A mere 13 players in the pit might seem like an insufficient orchestral body for such a brutal story and philosophically charged libretto, but Britten's resourceful and often inventive orchestration, in conjunction with Andrew Altenbach's supple direction, brought out bold textures and an ample sound.
"The Rape of Lucretia" is fundamentally both old and new. Britten's unique harmonic idiom makes the era of the opera's composition clear enough, but his use of monophonic textures, recitatives, and a Greek chorus give even the uncanniest of Britten's harmonies an antiquated feel. This idea of the present looking in on the past carries throughout the opera via the Male Chorus and the Female Chorus, sung by Salvatore Atti and Katie Abraham respectively. Together, the chorus told Lucretia's age-old story, sometimes as detached narrators and sometimes as phantoms that seemed to influence the characters. In an opera brimming with low voices, Atti's crisp tenor stood out against the dark texture. The urgency in his phrasings propelled the action, while his counterpart, Abraham, sang with a cool tone that highlighted the sophisticated language of Ronald Duncan's libretto.
Altenbach navigated the starkly contrasted music of the chorus (characterized by a mesmerizing harp figure) and the boisterous tavern scene (where we meet Collatinus, Tarquinius, and Junius), with impressive fluidity. Though all three characters sing within the range of bass-baritone, the polar emotions emanating from each character made the three voices distinctive and intensely vibrant.
David Brian Clark's lighter sound was ideal for the silver-tongued Junius. His tone was biting and agile enough to communicate the jealousy that plagues Junius, but never overbearing. With his smooth sound, Clark played the false-friend convincingly.
In the role of Lucretia's husband, Collatinus, Simon Dyer dominated with a rich, dark sound and an air of patience and good-heartedness. His finest moment came in the scene of Lucretia's suicide. Though tragic, Collatinus' genuine tenderness in this heartbreaking scene was a slight comfort in midst of so much deception.
After the manipulations of Junius and the Male Chorus, who have relentlessly egged Tarquinius on, the audience can almost sympathize with him before the infamous "Ride to Rome"; this sympathy, however, doesn't last long. During the ride, Tarquinius is reduced to a mindless animal. Ian Bowling carried Prince Tarquinius with a self-righteous, mocking demeanor and the versatility of his vocal inflections, alternately booming with authority and cooing lustfully, allowed Bowling to craft a highly visceral character.
The rape scene was played out in a way that neither downplayed the harrowing act nor made it disconcertingly graphic. Via a combination of physical engagement and symbolic action, Jena Viemeister, in the role of Lucretia, and Bowling presented the dismal scene effectively and dramatically.
Viemeister sounded at home in the low tessitura of the title role and could emote tremendously through her voice alone. Her Lucretia was fittingly gracious and poised both vocally and onstage.The role's lyrical passages allowed her warm tone to bloom, but she also excelled in the more dramatically driven musical passages.
Even in their brief roles, Tascha Anderson and Sophie-Nouchka Wemel made lasting impressions as Lucretia's nurse and maid. Though each character has a distinct persona, there is not too much by way of arias in "The Rape of Lucretia." It was in the abounding ensemble pieces that Anderson and Wembel showcased their bodied sounds.
The choreography scattered throughout the production gave much of the storytelling an abstract backdrop of sorts and pushed the wordy recitative segments forward. The set was both conservative and effective, though at times, the shifting walls became a little distracting.
The suicide of an innocent victim haunts the chorus as the opera closes. They infuse the situation with their contemporary ideologies, but the opera ends without any genuine feeling of closure. Regardless, the Boston Conservatory's artists succeeded in exposing the opera's countless moral questions through their faceted portrayals and presented the difficult subject respectfully.
"The Rape of Lucretia" will be presented on April 4 and 5 at 8:00 p.m. and April 6 at 2:00 p.m.