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Brutal Deflowering From A Bounteous Garden

The Theater House, Castleton Festival: Castleton Farms, Rappahannock County, Virginia
07/10/2009 -  & July 11th, 12th*, 2009
Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia (Libretto by Ronald Duncan, from the ancient legend)

Tyler S. Nelson (Male Chorus), Arianna Zukerman (Female Chorus), Tamara Mumford (Lucretia), Matthew Worth (Tarquinius), Allen Boxer (Collatinus), Paul LaRosa (Junius), Alison Tupay (Bianca), Marnie Breckenridge (Lucia) Kristan Okerlund (Piano), Jane Yoon (Guest Harp), Musicians from the Qatar Philharmonic), Andreas Weiser (Conductor July 11, 12), Lorin Maazel (Conductor, July 10, Artistic Director)
William Kerley (Stage Direction), Nicholas Vaughan (Set and Costume Designer), Rie Ono (Lighting Designer), The Châteauville Foundation (Producers)

M. Worth & T. Mumford (© Vale Rideout)

Fraudulent forsythia? Desiccated dogwood?? Say it isn’t so!

In perhaps the most touching and beautiful scene of any Benjamin Britten opera, two handmaidens gather floods of roses, hollyhocks, daffodils, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, unaware of their mistress’s misfortune. Yet apparently the producers of Rape of Lucretia ignored the floral wonders by their doorstep. For this opera was produced amidst the lush, forested, sumptuous grounds of rural Virginia. How could they dare to use stage blossoms for the real thing?

The poesy paucity was the only impediment of an impeccable Rape of Lucretia, supervised by Lorin Maazel on his 550-acre farm in the first year of what is now known as the Castleton Festival. The setting is so munificent (see feature: “From 1984 to Animal Farm) that initially one is a bit disconcerted by the dimensions of the Elizabethan-style theatre, seating just 120 people. But, like Britten’s opera, this theatre has been made for chamber productions adequate for the opera dimensions. The 13 musicians and conductor fit perfectly in the pits near the stage, the stage design was minimal. But the few cloth props were moved around to provide a tent for bivouacking bored Roman officers, the sewing room for the ladies, and of course the bed for that most realistic scene where the mad Etruscan king does his dirty deed.

Stage Director William Kerley utilized every section of the theatre. For the final chaconne-sextet, one character literally hung from the balcony. In another the ghostly-mad Lucretia made her way up and down both aisles of the theatre. For Britten’s “offstage” Omnes, shouting “Down with the Etruscans!”, Kerley arranged the (unbilled) chorus around the auditorium roaring and singing, with flashlights under their faces, creating startling phantomic visages.

All of this was necessary, since Britten’s opera can be talkative (mainly in the first act), the diction was not flawless, and the surtitles were barely visible in the semi-darkness. But when progressing, this is an opera of action, mystery, anachronism, and tenderness. And if the first act is expository and all too masculine, the movements of the soldiers, and the comments of the Chorus build up into movements of jealousy, almost unbearable sexual tension preparing for the second act surrender to lust.

During the intermission, the audience had seemed satisfied, if not exactly in suspense. For 15 minutes, they roamed the spacious gardens, sipped Champagne (oh, Lucretia! Must French Brut precede your Etruscan brute??), and prepared for an act of lust, rape, madness, death…… and yes, that universe of flowers, female singing (in harmonic thirds, no less), and a final Christian resolution.

This was a production which demanded, and received utmost sensitivity. It was shaped for the dimensions of the theatre, sculpted with the spirit of Lorin Maazel, and ideal for its spacious bucolic setting at Castleton Farm.

More important was the musicianship involved, beginning with the orchestra. Members of the Qatar Philharmonic, at Castleton for the summer, were conducted by Andreas Weiser, one of Mr. Maazel’s assistants for many years. His secret was to intermingle the sounds of the individual instruments with the largely contrapuntal singing. The coupling, even with Baroque style piano and harp, was seamless.

The professional singers were dynamic, emotional and of intense quality. Had the male voices been less authoritative, one might hardly have noticed, for the acoustics of this little theatre made each voice resonate. They were all dressed in the right Roman official cloaks, all with different characters.

Allen Boxer was Collatinus, and his character changed the most, from the priggish officer gloating about his devoted wife (“Why be so vicious? Why be so jealous?”) to utter and absolute despair (“So brief is beauty. Is this it all? It is all!”). His was a dramatic portrait sung by a bass with a most gentle voice. Baritone Paul LaRosa as Junius had the dramatically impossible part of being a nasty officer first, and then sympathetic to a rape for which he was partly responsible. This again was a strong voice, strong and demanding.

But now we come to the fulcrum of the play, Matthew Worth as the lust-driven Tarquinius and the scene of desolation against Tamara Mumford as Lucretia. In the bed and out of it, he is the monster, overturning columns, stripping the bed to reveal a naked light bulb (anachronisms are legion). Raging half naked with a leather whip, he was part Hell’s Angel, part Motorcycle Queen, part Stanley Kowalski – not the beautiful Brando but the savage Anthony Quinn Kowalski – raping Blanche DuBois. The voice was gleaming, tinged with terror.

Lucretia is the maiden put upon, and her sweetness and warmth never left her. Even the “mad scene” had an elegance, as she walked through the theatre, and finally lay down in the bed of flowers. This was a most touching portrait. Her handmaidens showed equal sweetness, part of this luscious Benjamin Britten, this tender heart between the analytic and so careful composer.

Tyler S. Nelson and Arianna Zukerman were the two Chorus members, and both were vocally powerful, if perhaps without any real warmth. Their role is metaphysical, moving from commentary to participation (Tarquinius almost stabs Mr. Nelson), strolling about the theatre. But they were both effective.

In finality, this was most effective Britten. Like Billy Budd, Peter Grimes and even Albert Herring, the theme was the persecution of innocence. But Lucretia straddles a magical invisible line between classical restraint and the highest emotion. In a certain way, it is an ironic comment on nature itself—human, bestial and natural. For this setting, Mr. Maazel’s team has formed a lovely and unsettling performance.

Harry Rolnick



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