The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

HGO: Rape of Lucretia (debut). Striking, elusive finale to Britten series. Michelle De Young. Rory McDonald. Arin Arbus.

Houston Grand Opera has just opened its first formal staging of Benjamin Britten’s first chamber opera, Rape of Lucretia - written shortly after first real lyric stage success, Peter Grimes. The image of Lucretia, all ramifications of heroism, sacrifice implied, captured the imagination of many artists, painters - also inspiring earlier musical settings. Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan, looked to Andre Obey’s play, Le Viol de Lucrece, as their source. Partly due to toll war took on resources, Britten decided to write here then for smaller forces. His ear, already adept toward making sonorities of chamber music delicacy come to life, meant that choice this way contributed only little to his operating at somewhat of a strain here. His having to deal with dramaturgically difficult subject matter, static character thereof, plus difficult and verbose librettist contributed more this way. Toward keeping Rape of Lucretia viable work of art, Britten made psychological use of growing tonal palette ultimately toward making something elusive, distanced thus his setting of this story to music.

Michelle DeYoung, very successful Brangane at both Met and La Scala quite recently, played the title role. Anthony Dean Griffey, after successful rendition of Peter Grimes here last season, provided Male Chorus. Rory McDonald, apprenticing recently under Antonio Pappano (Royal Opera), made with Rape of Lucretia, his HGO debut, replacing Patrick Summers on relatively short notice, due one guesses apparently to administrative backlog pressing upon Summers nowadays. Arin Arbus, in her HGO debut, though little experienced in opera thus far, revealed good theatrical and aesthetic sense, all in part product of making healthy inquiry regarding this art form. Far better is this than conceit of producers too self-assured not to regard as first and foremost repertoire they will stage - instead of contribution they reckon primarily important.

Andre Obey relates Lucretia’s suicide as instrumental toward cleansing what corruption which prince Tarquinus’s wanton act has inflicted upon Rome. Loss to the Etruscans of tyrannical hegemony over Rome five centuries before Christ quickly became inevitable. For message Britten seeks to convey, political considerations get relegated well to the background. Duncan, Britten’s librettist, hardly compelling advocate for brevity, saw Lucretia’s suicide sufficient with which to end the piece. Britten however, not for musical purposes alone, perceived the need to less abruptly, thinly frame such incident. Inclusion of Christian symbolism, most of all dealing with the death of Christ, served for Britten clear purpose – universalized figure thus thereof superior at personifying atonement, sacrifice central to natural internalization of guilt, then on behalf of excusing the actions of others.

Breaking things down more, Britten as Clare Seymour has explaied, was not primarily interested in gender relations near as much as issue to do with the act of seduction itself, and division between pure beauty or chastity and desire or lust. In perceiving happenings among heterosexuals, some homosexual ideation certainly comes into play - eventually toward linking Lucretia with Billy Budd, Aschenbach in Death in Venice – considerable task to fully decode, elucidate. Otherness about Lucretia does not much emerge on the surface such as with antihero Peter Grimes. She is already viable leader in her community, blending in well, clearly unlike Grimes. Suicide in the Britten becomes her means to absorb some of the guilt involved for action in which she is truly innocent. Lucretia subconsciously, half consciously to us, significantly draws Tarquinius in, ultimately toward compromising, threatening her still worse. Tarquinius, less intriguing to Britten than Lucretia, has an undeniable passivity, also as depicted musically, even while turning violent. Junius, practical sidekick of his early on in Act One, is practically Tarquinius wannabe, and experiences similar drives but conscience restrained from ever (ideally) fulfilling them. All men, especially while at drink, are equally liable to getting drawn in thus, similar to Tarquinius. Unblemished feminine beauty, purity is, interpreted here, further incitement to lust. Quintuplet figures, representing Lucretia, litter the score, abundantly fill out extended vocal lines.

Mirroring between agent(s) and recipients of seduction became impetus, engine behind how Bob Carsen staged Mozart’s Don Giovanni at La Scala two months ago – some of which blocked by excessive infusion of additives - device, obsessing over such. Such device thus often became front and center, obstructing attention from action on stage and music to portray such, drive action forward, fill out either normally expected or surprised emotional reaction. What can obstruct maintaining healthy focus with Lucretia is the excessively verbose libretto of Ronald Duncan, deleteriously empowered thus, should one opt for an excessively purist or pristine either musical or dramatic approach.

Decision by Ariin Arbus and Rory McDonald, working in fine tandem was, if to err, to err then on the side of simplicity. Musical rewards, with taking such an approach, became abundant, in drawing out Britten’s rich, even if chamber forces subdued tonal palette. One can not draw out of twelve players, regardless how fine, what atmospheric compass, sweep Peter Grimes almost automatically provides.

Michelle DeYoung, enjoying first HGO visit since playing Venus in Tannhauser ten years ago, made a healthily voluptuous Lucretia, physically and vocally. She, though, for spinning scene first entrance, showed prudence to restrain opening out too much, thus revealing how internally aware Lucretia is of her station in life. Arioso, ‘How cruel men are” incisively evinced firm moral reproach, anticipating well taut response to Tarquinius’s assault - latter with defining moment, expressed darkly, incisively, ‘You, In the forest of my dreams.’ Anxiety, urgency expressed during garden scene was firm, distraught – but also while evoking hysteria for production to turn mildly blowsy, putting Lucretia’s value upon pure marital bliss slightly subject to doubt. The more pristine Brit approach might convey more authority – though leaving behind doubt of Lucretia’s ability to draw Tarquinius in. Two ringing acuti comfortably above the break distinguished one or two tense passages. Fine poise, dignity characterized much DeYoung contributed, even if perhaps quasi-verismo in approach at times.

Character contrast between Lucretia’s maidservants was abundant, between Lauren Snouffer’s pert, gracefully charming Lucia with alternatively light and clarion ringing top and Judith Forst’s earthily conscientious Bianca. A little fraying at the edges vocally became evident here from Forst. After stellar appearances in Turn of the Screw and Pique-Dame here two seasons ago. Gutsy urgency toward delaying, preventing Collatinus’s arrival in Act Two was telling. Forst, still conveying much ring of authority with text and all-knowing look on stage seldom seemed seriously encumbered by any vocal considerations. Leah Crocetto, with voice seemingly hybrid between mezzo and soprano, well conveyed look of moral authority, strong witness as Female Chorus, but toward higher reaches in the part mildly squally in tone and diction. Crocetto matched Griffey mostly well in unisons together and strutted forth in firm chest voice, with taut chutzpah marcia of ‘So here the grumbling Romans’ - memorably so. Additional lines within similarly confident reach also well got message across.

Contrast between sparring trio of in effect frat boys Collatinus, Junius, and Tarquinius, all quite similarly voiced here was at first, perhaps on purpose, hard to pick out. Ryan McKinny provided fine swagger, suave line, and in final scene with Lucretia, well attenuated empathy as Collatinus, if slightly lacking full tonal depth toward limning general’s lines more authoritatively. Guileless sense, naivete regarding what Lucretia might become up against elucidated well where perhaps some of Lucretia’s vulnerability may lie. Joshua Hopkins made ideal match vocally for Junius, capturing identifiably well the lad’s conscience stricken frustration restraining him from Tarquinius like conquest of Lucretia himself - almost always otherwise one seemingly merry, guileless lad. Jacques Imbralio, 2007 Cardiff finalist for auspicious HGO debut, with finest diction and phrasing of this lot, made earlier taunting, then suavely lascivious, ultimately consumed Tarquinius – with almost unrivalled fun and aplomb from amidst gang of three.

Thoroughly splendid was Male Chorus of Anthony Dean Griffey, providing illusion of this part being as dramatically engaged as, played eloquently here by Griffey before, Lennie and Peter Grimes. Diction - equally fine Imbrailo’s - was so distinctive, suavely conveyed that if not warned beforehand, hardly would it be credible that Griffey isn’t British. He made perfectly musical, astutely alert all spoken line anticipating Tarquinius’s approach to Lucretia’s inner chambers. Enveloping honeyed melos for stretching out lyricism was always at the ready to make point as specific as with furious reproach – nothing ever cloying. Some mystery remains how none of this conspicuously verbose part never seemed one line too long. If only Wagner could have made Gurnemanz a lyric tenor! Bravura for vocalized ‘ride to Rome’ interlude (Act One) was salaciously complete. Solo framing line (to unison of both choruses) such as ‘Christ, heal our blindness we mistake for sight’ hovered far beyond the footlights toward conveying universally extended balm, sublime bliss.

Arin Arbus, upon relatively simple set framed by Roman columns and steps, discreetly adorned by brick, stone, and garment (Jean-Guy Lecat), with named characters in traditional garb, Choruses in modern, displayed fine discretion and flexibility in drawing out fine, well nuanced realism from all cast members on stage. Interaction from Choruses with characters, first situated in-between, reckoned entirely well when to lend climactic stations during narrative in progress good, meaningful emphasis. Lighting (Michael James Clark) through dark chiaroscuro for night scenes, bright sunlight to enhance pastel colors on stage, pastels as well from the orchestra pit, fine half-lit silhouetting of Roman characters anathematizing the Etruscans was of very high quality toward providing both sonic and visual picture fuller body.

Rory McDonald provided fine leadership, making all overlap of contrasting, frequently suggestive sonorities flow well, rhythmic life and emphasis pulsating within. Lightly harp adorned muted strings provided night scenes fine patina thus. Duet of alto flute and clarinet helped provide warm down into which to sink, while making intimate distinction of Crocetto’s poetic lullaby for Lucretia asleep on stage. More stringent accents characterized spiky, steadily ‘Chorus’ led chorale prelude interlude framing traumatic action on stage having just transpired, then firmly held in check, magisterial passacaglia finale to entire work. Bach Passion inspired obbligato by Elisabeth Priestly Knight on English horn to elaborate simply intoned lament between Lucretia and Collatinus was highly expressive.

While evoking fine scale for this work’s elusive proportions, McDonald made enfold contrasting pastels and darker sharp keys – latter especially evoking knowledge Britten likely picked up from Verdi. Flow between contrasting passages - consoling solace for sleeping Lucretia, encroaching, seemingly ubiquitous menace occurred seamlessly, unimpeded – all as though peeling back contrasting, revealing layers of consciousness. McDonald only trusted slightly too much stewardship provided percussion - some tendency toward over-emphasis, helping clot several nodal points - lines to tightly rein all in becoming cramped instead. Insightful though, McDonald’s attitude well manifest toward modernism here was unflinching. McDonald should return here soon - eventually for well-varied repertoire.

Sadly then and quite elusively, HGO’s Britten cycle has drawn slightly early to a close. It opened with Billy Budd in 2008, providing single installment all four seasons since. Gloriana was next season to provide grandiose finale to this always superbly probing illuminating series. Audience response to this shorter piece – arguably most elusive and difficult thus far - was highly favorable, suggesting perhaps that HGO soon take on still more challenging progressive repertoire from this past century – with hope for improvement to orchestral forces toward achieving worthiness for such assignment.

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