Opera Review: 'The Rape of Lucretia' and 'The Beggar's Opera' at Castleton

Monday, July 13, 2009

The third opera of the Castleton Festival, Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia," opened Friday night. The appeal of this chamber opera -- precisely calibrated to fit eight voices and 13 instrumentalists -- was heightened by the intimate theater on Lorin Maazel's Rappahannock County estate. Performing so close to the receptive audience, the singers enunciated every word clearly, making the supertitles projected above the stage unnecessary.

Britten's 1946 work -- about an Etruscan prince's violation of a virtuous Roman wife -- was his first in the series of chamber operas at the heart of the festival's first year. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford reprised her devastating performance in the title role from two years ago, with an opulent tone and molten lower register that incarnated the character's wounded grief. The music of the women's scenes, airy textures featuring the clear-fingered harp of Jane Yoon, enveloped her in the lambent soprano of Marnie Breckinridge (Lucia) and the anchored chest voice of Alison Tupay (Bianca).

The incisive baritone and feral libido of Matthew Worth's Tarquinius stood out in the male cast, seconded by the powerfully resonant Junius of Paul LaRosa. William Kerley's staging cast the male and female choruses, sung less ably by Tyler Nelson and a slightly hoarse Arianna Zukerman, as modern-day Christian evangelists who narrate the story and interact with the characters. The action unfolded on a steeply raked stage with minimal set pieces (designed by Nicholas Vaughan), and the heat-steeped orange colors of the male scenes invaded the glowing white purity of Lucretia's home (lighting by Rie Ono).

Maazel also revived his raucous production of Britten's lesser-known adaptation of "The Beggar's Opera" a week ago. John Gay's ballad opera skewered 18th-century English society's lack of morals in the form of cutthroats, thieves, whores and corrupt officials. Britten, known for his admiration of historical English music, reharmonized and orchestrated the original melodies, which he praised as "among our finest national songs."

A cast with excellent comic timing brought the story to life, led by the light tenor of Dominic Armstrong's Macheath and the brassy Mrs. Peachum of Melissa Parks. William Kerley's slapstick staging is suited to its location, the temporary festival tent, which places the audience and the action around the small orchestra's pit. Only the bitter tone of the scenes in Newgate Prison, with Macheath in an orange jumpsuit and the noose starkly lit by fluorescent lights, seemed misplaced, making an otherwise spumescent performance fall flat.

The Castleton Festival concludes this weekend, and there will be two more performances of "The Beggar's Opera" (on Thursday and Saturday) and three of "Albert Herring" (Friday to Sunday).

-- Charles T. Downey

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