Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Rape of Lucretia at Cal Performances, Berkeley

 Last night, I attended a performance of Benjamin Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia" by Castleton Festival Opera, conducted by its founder maestro Lorin Maazel, in Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley.

I had long loved this chamber opera and glad to had the chance to see it in a hall with more appropriate size than San Francisco Opera's War Memorial Opera House.  Britten's music was economic and austere, but with pages and pages of startling beauty.  He was very dept in setting mood and narrate drama with his notes.  His vocal writing was masterful - I still believe that there are only two operatic composers who can set the difficult English to music right - Handel (Händel) and Britten.

The staging matched the beauty and the economy of the music perfectly.  There are many telling details are very startling and effective.  The singers mostly made very positive impact and I particularly enjoyed the singing of tenor Vale Rideout as Male Chorus, soprano Arianna Zukerman as Female Chorus, bass Michael Rice as Collatinus, contralto Ekaterina Metlova as Lucretia, baritone Matthew Worth as Tarquinius, and mezzo-soprano Alison Tupay as Bianca.

However, I wasn't expect for an uncomplicated little story,the opera would have lasted so long, much longer (two and half hours including one intermission) than I was prepared for and longer than I would have liked.  The story is a simple one: Rome was ruled by Etruscan lords, who were waging a war with the Greeks.  An cruel bet proved all noble Roman women except Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, was virtuous.  This piqued Etruscan prince Tarquinius, who became drawn to her virtue and determined to destroy her virtue.  He raped her, she committed suicide.  Opportunist Roman politicians incited Romans to rise to overthrow the Etruscan lords.

For this lurid yet simple story, Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan added a big them of Christian sacrifice, which was quite interesting and often moving, but dramatically quite a stretch.  The inclusion of Chrisitian element definitely made the story bigger, and more universal; however, it also diminished its universality.  Quite I few times, I was reminded of the recent Tunisian revolution, sparked by the self-immolation of a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later.  There are many gestures with Christian significance by the Male and Female Chorus, often reminded me of mega-churches in the U.S., with their outstretched hands and touting of the Bible.  Those gestures got too repetitive and tedious, and had manipulative, controlling undertone, and even slightly sinister.

The Male Chorus was a gratifying role for a tenor, but not necessarily for the audience.  For an ideal dramatic structure, that role should have been made much smaller.  However, since it was created for Britten's life partner, wonderful tenor Peter Pears, the role was inevitably big; to balance it, the Female Chorus became unnecessarily big as well.  They contributed to the drama, but perversely, reduced the drama by their over-long staying on stage.

I couldn't help but comparing this opera to Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" which had more lurid and complicated story, yet its using of a commentator (a narrator) was much more appropriate in length.  The Narrator related background stories and propelled the story headlong to its climactic conclusion; while here, the Male and Female Chorus force-fed the virtues and sacrifices of Jesus Christ and other Christians to the audience.  It eventually became a spectacle audience was forced to partake, to witness the self-flagellation of the homosexual Benjamin Britten to tone for his "sin" publicly.

All those said, I was glad that I had seen this wonderful opera live.  Kudos must go to Cal Performances which presents many gems ignored by the biggest operatic player in the Bay Areas - San Francisco Opera, led by a conservative and inward-looking impresario David Gockley, who had canceled a planned Peter Grimes, apparently due to economic woe.  In last decade, only Gockley's predecessor, the more adventurous Pamela Rosenberg had presented a Britten, the most satisfying Billy Budd, which proved a highlight of the last decade at San Francisco Opera.

Cal Performances will present Britten's "Albert Herring" tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  I would love to see Britten's other masterpieces: Peter Grimes, Death in Venice, Curlew River, and The Midsummer Night's Dream.


  1. I'd put John Adams up there with Handel and Britten in setting English well, but otherwise agree. The music to "Lucretia" is great but the libretto by the minor South African poet Ronald Duncan has always been a problem, and has been widely criticized by all of Britten's friends and admirers since its premiere. The "Christian" narrators are Duncan's idea, and he was heterosexual, so your supposition about Britten's "self-flagellation" about his homosexuality is incorrect.

    I also thought the Castleton Festival production was terribly staged. There was a production by the student Adlers from the San Francisco Opera at Cowell Theatre about six years ago that was way better.

  2. Dear SFMike:

    Glad to hear your experience with Adler Fellow's production. I didn't have the opportunity to compare but I like the Castleton production.

    As for the I just wrote down my further thinking on the this opera - Rethinking of Classics. The new rumination might be controversial as well.

    I perhaps also left Henry Purcell out, who was a great English composer. John Adams is very good too, but I'm afraid my experience with his composition had been spoiled by Peter Sellars' influence upon him.