Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia,” staged in Seattle this weekend by Vespertine Opera, packs big punches with small forces — a cast of eight, an orchestra of 13 — and an ambiguous thrust: a recounting of horrendous rape, with a religious message tacked on. It’s only when one looks at the circumstances around its 1946 composition that this makes sense.
Britten returned from spending the war in the U.S. to find Europe in ruins, and gave a 1945 performance for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. For many, hope was all there was left. This opera might be considered an allegory, as in both cases a greedy, lust-filled man left ruin in the wake of his single-minded pursuit.
Briefly the story is of Etruscan prince Tarquinius who, inflamed with desire for Lucretia, the chaste wife of Roman general Collatinus, leaves his army camp at night, gallops to Rome and rapes her after her gracious welcome at his inopportune arrival. She sends for her husband, and kills herself after telling him what happened. This happens in 500 B.C. but two omnipresent commentators, Female Chorus and Male Chorus, modern and Christian, provide the hope at the end
To our knowledge, “Lucretia” has not been performed in Seattle before, and kudos to tiny Vespertine for presenting this production; also, credit goes to St. Mark’s Cathedral for providing the venue, which proved immensely satisfactory as a backdrop to Friday night’s performance.
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Jose Rubio as Tarquinius, Colin Ramsey as Collatinus, Charles Robert Stephens as the false friend Junius, Julia Bensinger as Lucretia, Melissa Plagemann and Emma Grimsley as her maids, Brendan Tuohy as Male Chorus and Holly Boaz as Female Chorus, were uniformly excellent musically and as actors, though the register for Female Chorus seemed uncomfortably low for Boaz.
Stage direction by Vespertine’s artistic director Dan Wallace Miller made good use of the space, though it felt wrong to have the Choruses join the action to the extent they did. Imaginative lighting by Marnie Cummings comprised almost entirely candles, set all around the stage and up stair treads, with a red light rising dramatically like flames from hell behind the great doors back of the altar as they closed inexorably behind Lucretia and with Tarquinius in pursuit.
You hear the drunkenness, the hurrying horse, the spinning, the horror and doom in Britten’s superb score, well-played under conductor Jeremiah Cawley, and supertitles add what you might miss in words.
The opera is repeated Saturday night.