Friday, June 12, 2009

A less-remembered passion

The Rape of Lucretia -- Opera Company of Philadelphia, 6/7/09
Mumford, Gunn, Burden, Jesse, Wager, Dubin, Sanders, Moriah / Hayes

The chamber size and scope of Britten's 1946 opera on the old Roman legend make it both easier to revive -- no great forces need be assembled -- and more difficult -- it plays best within a smaller space where one can't sell so many tickets. To stage it in Philadelphia -- where the audience is so traditional that Christoph Eschenbach's extremely modest and hardly modernist dose of 20th-century programming inspired a patron revolt at the Orchestra -- makes financial success even less probable. Nevertheless, the Opera Company of Philadelphia is now presenting an excellent production of the piece at the small, new and friendly Perelman Theater within the city's Kimmel Center -- a giant space better known for its larger hall in which the Orchestra now resides. I attended last Sunday's show, and two remain: tonight (Friday) and this Sunday afternoon.

The piece -- Britten's first post-Grimes opera -- premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946: Kathleen Ferrier (double cast with Nancy Evans) first played the title role -- her very first operatic part, in fact -- with Peter Pears (double cast with the wonderful Danish tenor Aksel Schi√łtz) as the Male Chorus. It has never had a great reception, and seems to leave reviewers puzzled anew with each revival. (See, for example, the Philly Inquirer account.)

And yet there is something essential played out on the opera's double stage: both in the Roman tale of virtue assaulted by the foreign usurper-king's son and the framing tale of two narrative choruses (one male, one female) re-viewing the action from a more modern -- specifically, Christian -- perspective. It is this latter element that seems to trip people up: What are we to make of this play-within-a-play structure and Christian commentary? Does it not suck out the dramatic content of the story?

Sort of. Even as the Choruses get sucked into the tale's unfolding urgency, there is a certain distance in having them recount a known outcome. A sort of ritual space intersects the dramatic. But the foreign element of narrative (and ritual) was in drama from the start, in the Greek tragedies that themselves retold familiar stories. Closer to our time we have the example of Bach's passions -- and it is this half-liturgical context to which Britten's opera seems to owe more than a little, not least in the climactic scene: Lucretia, feeling all is broken and bent on death, finally appears to her husband to the mournful strains of a (I believe) thitherto-silent oboe. It is a terrific moment.

But both sets of characters have the same concern: the inherent self-destructiveness -- by inspiration of desire -- of beauty, both physical and moral. It is a recurring concern of Britten (most obviously in the later Billy Budd), and not far from the essence of the tragic. It's in tragedy that the beautiful and virtuous are destroyed by our own overpowering desire to consume them: only in the transmission of their story do they live on, untouched. But the persistence of story, of art, is a consolation not to the liking of the Choruses -- or perhaps meaningless to them after the sheer amount of destruction they have seen in closer life, having been created to their stage just after the Second World War. Religion -- Christianity, in our time -- promises the consolation of the actual, resurrection from by and of a divinity who can be consumed (and is, regularly, in Catholic ritual) without his destruction. And yet the Choruses -- like the ancient Romans on which they look -- are ultimately figures of art, participants in and of story, a story in which they persist no matter their continuation or obliteration within, by which Lucretia may be destroyed with no more loss than a few hours' intense presence by the cast...

*     *     *

In this performance itself, I found tenor William Burden to be a huge and welcome surprise. The Male Chorus is, unsurprisingly (it was the Pears role), the meatiest part besides Lucretia's, and Burden fills it with a searing eloquence I didn't know he had in him. But all the men sang well: not just the familiar Nathan Gunn (baritone) as Tarquinius, but equally Ben Wager (bass) as Lucretia's husband Collatinus and Eric Dubin (another baritone) as Junius, a politically ambitious Roman general. Mezzo Allison Sanders (Lucretia's servant Bianca) was the standout among the supporting women, with a glorious lower register of her own. The two sopranos -- Karen Jesse as the Female Chorus and Rinnat Moriah as Lucretia's other servant Lucia -- were a bit less satisfying, each with a bit of hardness on top and Jesse (like Sanders, a young singer from Curtis) relatively faceless next to Burden's tour-de-force as her counterpart.

Much, of course, depends on the title character, and here Tamara Mumford too shone. When Ferrier premiered the part, she was not even an opera singer, not yet the "Kathleen Ferrier" of near-myth, but her characteristic qualities were visible. Britten spoke of Ferrier's "grand" and "noble" personality suiting her for the part, her "natural beauty" without being any sort of "sexy dame". It's these very qualities that make Mumford an odd (if effective) fit for the character parts she does at the Met -- and, frankly, perhaps for conventional opera altogether -- but an unusually good fit for this one. That I hear some of Ferrier's timbre in her is just icing.

Both the conducting of David Hayes and the production of William Kerley precisely and clearly presented Britten's opera without distraction or extraneous matter.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.