For those who believe divine intervention works amid the chaos of the opera world, Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of
The Rape of Lucretia
seems meant to be. In its first solo foray into chamber opera at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, the casting represents a harmonic convergence of the right singers in the right roles in the right theater. Then you must ask why any divinity would intervene for an opera that has such difficulty saying what it means.
Everything about the opera - the story (of a 509 B.C. Roman woman who is raped by an Etruscan prince), Benjamin Britten's spare music and Ronald Duncan's literary libretto - feels important. But so many elements fail to add up, creators and cast seem to be speaking in code. Take the opera at face value and it doesn't say much beyond "Rape is bad" and "Men like to destroy." We know that. The commentary framing the opera puts a Brechtian shadow over the primary story, robbing it of theatrical fire. Some roles are too prominent to justify their limited dramatic function; others are too short.
Opera Company has taken an admirable risk by staging this provocative but troubled piece in ways that say chamber opera can be as artistically lush - and starry - as its grander counterparts. Tamara Mumford was close to ideal as Lucretia, singing with perfect conviction and projecting all the integrity and dignity of a woman who stands behind her marriage vows amid an amoral culture. She also has a physical fragility that makes her vulnerable to the handsome but loutish Tarquinius, sung with great vocal ingenuity by Nathan Gunn. William Burden played one of the opera's narrators as a sort of modern-day televangelist looking back at this barbaric society in ways neither judgmental nor salacious; he vocalized magnificently, with superb English diction.
Minor roles were wonderfully sung, including Karen Jesse as the co-narrator, and, particularly, Allison Sanders as the maid Bianca. Time and again, the cast delivered great vocal subtleties and a detailed physical characterization that could never be heard in a larger hall. Conductor David Hayes kept the music's ambiguity - with its undulating basses and delicate but creepy harp writing - mostly engrossing.
Theatrically speaking, there were no triumphs. When Lucretia was last seen in this area, Opera New Jersey took an ür-text approach as if to say, "Here it is; you figure it out." The OCP production from the Castleton Festival went with this kind of basic information with finer points added, giving more to look at but not in ways that are revealing. A ramp slopes across the stage with a huge door at one end through which tragic elements arrive and recede. A small tent suggests a military camp; a flower garden comes out of the floorboards. A horse harness was brandished in moments of subjugation. Lucretia sprinkled red flower petals as she was dying. Such idealization of suicide is in keeping with the piece - but if only Oprah had been alive and writing librettos in the 1940s. She'd have stood up to Britten and gotten a much better opera out of him.
Music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Ronald Duncan. Directed by William Kerley, set and costume design by Nicholas Vaughan. Conducted by David Hayes.
Lucretia . . . Tamara Mumford
Tarquinius . . . Nathan Gunn
Male Chorus . . . William Burden
Female Chorus . . . Karen Jesse
Bianca . . . Allison Sanders
Lucia . . . Rinnat Moriah
Collatinus . . . Ben Wager