David McFerrin and Duncan Rock in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Rape of Lucretia." Source: BLO

The Rape of Lucretia

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 3 MIN.

A number of operatic roles in the repertory were conceived with a specific voice in mind. Benjamin Britten composed "The Rape of Lucretia" in 1946 expressly for the incomparable Kathleen Ferrier. Although Lucretia was recorded subsequently by great mezzos such as Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Ferrier's live recording reveals a voice of remarkable opulence and a performance of great intensity. The Roman heroine who commits suicide after being raped by the evil King Tarquinius is a wonderful, dramatic vehicle for a singing actress; but the chamber opera is not often revived today. As the next vehicle in its current season, Boston Lyric Opera is presenting Britten's chamber opera at South Boston's Artists for Humanity Epicenter.

The expansive performing space of the venue made a fitting amphitheater for a Roman tragedy. The orchestra was sequestered in an attic space behind a drapery, and the drama was enacted on a circular stage in the center of the hall. Stage director Sarna Lapine ingeniously utilized the entire space, with characters entering and exiting from ramps and stairways throughout the hall, and going out into the aisles to sing amid the audience. And the singing was unanimously of a very high caliber.

The title role was performed by the beautiful Kelley O'Connor, a mezzo who has graced the stages of many major opera houses in the US. Not only was she a believable heroine from a physical and dramatic standpoint, but she sang with a solid, rich tone throughout. Perhaps not up the exalted level of her illustrious predecessors, O'Connor excelled in the taxing role. Often on the Met roster, bass Brandon Cedel sang the role of Lucretia's husband, Collatinus. As soon as he opened his mouth, a seamless flood of opulent bass sound emerged which instantly impressed. He phrased well, and sang the role with tenderness and nuance.

Margaret Lattimore was ideally cast, and very impressive as Lucretia's servant, Bianca. Her voluminous contralto was effective in both the dramatic passages, and the few comic moments. Baritone Duncan Rock sang the role of the evil Tarquinius with such tonal beauty that it was difficult not to sympathize in some way with this heinous villain. The rest of the cast was equally accomplished, and BLO conductor David Angus led the chamber orchestra with his usual authority. The only potential problem then, would rest in the work itself.

To fully appreciate "...Lucretia," one must be partial to Britten's style of vocal writing: consistently dissonant patter which never forms a comprehensive melody or really goes anywhere. A brilliant orchestrator, Britten does endow the accompaniments and orchestral passages with atmosphere. And he does have a keen sense of the theater. His Lucretia is a very sympathetic heroine, and the opera ultimately quite moving. The prolix, overripe libretto of Ronald Duncan is at moments unbearable. The repetitive dialogue in several scenes was enough to make one wish that the work had been truncated to a 45 minute cantata, rather than stretched into a two-hour opera.

The Boston Lyric Opera remains in the Modernist vein for performances of Poul Ruder's The Handmaid's Tale," scheduled to be produced in May at Harvard University.

The final performance of the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Rape of Lucretia" takes place on Sunday, March 17 at 5pm at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, 100 West 2nd Street, Fort Point, Boston. For more information, visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.

by Ed Tapper

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