It was not the wont of Benjamin Britten to take up a subject so full of red and flowing blood as "The Rape of Lucretia," which was performed by Opera SW last night. This tale of a Prince of Rome, Tarquinius, who gets drunk with his encamped fellow conquerers one night and, after a drinking song, sets out filled with lust to rape Lucretia, sounds more like Verdi or Donizetti.
The result, though, is one of the finest Britten operas--an unconventional, highly stylized drama that only occasionally lifts the dramatic veil that Britten placed over the melodramatic action. It is an atmospheric, sometimes delicate and almost always lyrical work that handles its powerful text with subtlety.
Instead of rattling the roof with a "Ride of the Valkyries" as Tarquinius races on horseback from camp to Lucretia's bedside, as it were, we get an orchestral interlude. In character, it is not unlike the glowing sea interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes"--with their strong contrasts of grim darkness and bright light--which have become more famous than any of that superb opera's vocal lines.
There is also an element of Greek drama. The exposition and motivation of "The Rape of Lucretia" are dispatched quickly and quietly by two narrators--a tenor titled "male chorus" and a soprano called "female chorus."
If this chamber scale work begins to sound a little precious from this description, it does not seem so on the stage. Britten's compression, his irony and the holding back of climaxes in the earlier parts make the rape and suicide of Lucretia that follow all the more startling. There is also considerable melodic eloquence and musical imagination, particularly in the evanescent orchestration (for only 12 instruments and piano). Someday someone will write a good book simply on how Britten used the harp descriptively, evoking last night at one point a cricket, and a few minutes later a spinning wheel.
Opera SW, a small company at the Westminster United Methodist Church in Southwest Washington, sets up its considerable sets in the church's main hall and uses local musicians. None of the singers was fully up to Britten's stringent demands, but several had distinctions. The most impressive was tenor Paul McIlvaine as "the male chorus," a role written for Britten's associate, Sir Peter Pears. From the beginning it appeared that McIlvaine's enunciation would be clear; the voice, also, was powerful, though it could have been more suavely produced.
Valerie Eichelberger was attractive and acted well as Lucretia. But her tone and pronunciation slipped in direct proportion to the role's intensity. Mary Carrigan was persuasive as the young maid, and sang attractively, except for her hoarse highs.
The set looked a bit like a large pile of giant ice cubes, but in its neutral way it was inoffensive.
"The Rape of Lucretia" will be repeated tonight, and next Friday and Saturday.