From Ancient Rome, Curtis Institute opera suddenly relevant
"It is an axiom among kings," we hear early on in Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, "to use a foreign threat to hide a local evil."
No literal references to the current political turn of events seeped into the Curtis Institute of Music's production of the chamber opera, performed Thursday night at the Prince Theater, though nothing overt was necessary to make connections. The scapegoating of foreigners, a cynical leader who uses his position of power to avail himself of women – it is all there in the ancient Roman legend of Tarquinius Superbus.
The appearance of Britten's 1946 work at this moment posed an odd series of resonances; classical music so often struggles to be relevant, and this score, while sitting on the shelf all these years, is suddenly too close for comfort.
The music offers little solace. This is among Britten's most astringent scores, and though there is text-painting, there are many more pivotal stretches in which you struggle to make connections between the music and the matter at hand (the rape scene itself is one). Still, what Britten does with just 13 instruments and eight singers is remarkable. The harp part is a treatise on the strange and unusual. Very subtly, skeletally even, Britten suggests Bach in his poignant use of English horn in the moments after Lucretia reveals Tarquinius' crime to her husband, Collatinus, and just before her suicide.
Orchestra and singers in this production are bunched close on the Prince's small stage, which added to the immediacy among performers led by conductor Conner Gray Covington. Jordan Fein is director of this vision, which has singers in modern garb (jeans, underwear). Two who are present to us but not to the characters are a male chorus singer and female chorus singer, sung and acted beautifully by Evan Johnson and Tiffany Townsend. The part of Lucretia was taken commandingly and with great poise Thursday by Kendra Broom (two casts rotate).
Britten's window on the story ends soon after Lucretia's death, and the only consoling words come from the male and female chorus, who comment through a Christian lens. Her suicide, however, prompts the overthrow of the monarchy, and the Roman republic is born. The most hopeful development, democracy asserting itself by overthrowing tyranny, was left to listeners to find for themselves as they left the theater pondering the new reality.
Additional performances: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the Prince Theater, Chestnut St. just west of Broad St. Tickets are $10 and $35, princetheater.org, 215-422-4580.