The Merola Opera Program, San Francisco Opera's summer camp for young professionals, has moved most of its public performances this season to Everett Middle School at Church and 16th Streets. Last week they presented two performances of Benjamin Britten's 1946 chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, and it was easily the finest production of the piece I have seen live.
The school is an unexpectedly charming location, and their pretty old auditorium an almost perfect size and acoustic for smaller-scale opera. It only lacked an orchestra pit, so the musicians were assembled in front of the first row of seats. This wasn't such a problem for Lucretia because it is written for only 13 instrumentalists, and the orchestra's playing under conductor Mark Morash was so magical that sitting in that front row would have been a treat. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro early next month might be another story.
The eight singers in the cast were uniformly good, without a weakness in the ensemble, which is rare in any performance. The staging by director Peter Kazaras was simple, stripped down and the storytelling was both comprehensible and suffused with feeling. By dispensing almost completely with any props or elaborate stage movement, the singing actors were forced to convey their characters' states with the simplest of means which they performed ably. San Francisco Opera lighting designer Chris Maravich was a luxury collaborator, and his contribution was immense. Above is Chris Carr on the left as Tarquinius the Etruscan Prince/Rapist and Efrain Solis as Junius the political plotter in an exceptionally strong performance in a secondary role. (All production photos are by Kristen Loken.)
The most notable voice of the Saturday matinee performance was Robert Watson above as the Male Chorus who is narrating the tale along with Linda Barnett as the Female Chorus. Even the occasionally clunky verse libretto by Ronald Duncan sounded exciting in Watson's performance. His description of Tarquinius's ride from army camp to Lucretia's villa in Rome to carry out his dark deed was masterful. Unfortunately, Barnett was stuck with poetry like:
The oatmeal slippers of sleep
Creep through the city and drag
The sable shadows of night
Over the limbs of light.
An ambitious, recently published biography of Britten by Paul Kildea notes that Lucretia's suicidal shame after her rape was originally more complex, but the Lord Chamberlain's office demanded a change in the libretto before it was allowed onstage. This was what Duncan and Britten originally wrote:
Male Chorus: He takes her handThe following is the amended, nonsensical version:
And places it upon his unsheathed sword
Female Chorus: Thus wounding her with an equal lust
A wound only his sword can heal
Tarquinius: Poised like a dartThe rape scene in this production with Chris Carr as Tarquinius and Kate Allen as Lucretia above was very stylized, but the violence and the sexuality were omnipresent, and they didn't look ridiculous like the poor couple in the Lorin Maazel production at UC Berkeley a couple of years ago, who were directed to flail around a mattress wrapped in gauze.
Lucretia: At the heart of woman
Male Chorus: Man climbs toward his God,
Female Chorus: Then falls to his lonely hell.
There are many major Britten pieces that are still rarely performed, such as The Spring Symphony, The Cello Symphony, the three chamber opera Church Parables which includes the Japanese/Episcopalian Curlew River, the grand opera Gloriana, and the full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. This makes it almost annoying to hear the same handful of Britten works repeatedly like Peter Grimes and A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra along with Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia. The latter two appear often because they are perfect for student ensembles. Still, this Merola production was good enough that I sat through the entire performance enthralled. In the photo above, Kate Allen's Lucretia is being comforted by Katie Hannigan as the old maid Bianca in another sensationally good performance in a minor role.
Here's a funny and wise anecdote from Kildea's biography about the puzzled, dismissive reaction to the opera after its premiere:
Even Queen Mary put her oar in. 'Tell me, Mr. Britten, what made you choose such a subject?' she asked following a Glyndebourne performance. 'Well, I am rather interested in that sort of thing,' he found himself replying, to his long-lasting embarrassment. The response continued to be critical for decades. After a 1972 performance of Lucretia in Belgrade, Sviatoslav Richter wrote: 'The actual subject matter I find unappealing and even see a certain banality in it, a quality I'd rather not associate with Britten.'