Blaming The Victim
New York State Theater
Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia
Monica Groop (Lucretia), Orla Boylan (Female Chorus), Michael Hendrick (Male Chorus), Sanford Sylvan (Collatinus), Mel Ulrich (Tarquinius)
New York City Opera
Daniel Beckwith (conductor)
Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried…”
William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece
“Excuse brief scrawl, but Lucretia is patiently
waiting to be raped-on my desk.”
Benjamin Britten, letter to Basil Wright 1946
Some years ago, the Metropolitan Opera offered what seems, from a perusal of the video made at the time, to have been a fine performance of Benjamin Britten’s intimate opera Death in Venice. However, anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly pronounces the effort a dismal failure, the gentle and subtle ideas of the composer lost in the vast reaches of the elephantine house. The singers, quite correctly, did not adjust their tender and personal tones to reach the cheap seats at the back of the upper levels and the experience was frustrating for those present who did not possess exceptional powers of hearing. Now the New York City Opera, that brash young tomboy who sometimes totally upstages her more glamorous sister, is attempting another of these small scale productions in a relatively large hall. Britten wrote The Rape of Lucretia for a Glyndebourne smaller than the one we know today (Mr. Christie’s sitting room had places for 600 in the 1940’s), scaling down the scope of the action and replacing full Greek choruses with just one male and one female singer. Mounting it in a modern Gotham cave with 2763 seats and problematic acoustics is indeed a brave and challenging venture. The question on my mind before attending was this: will the singers alter their styles to fit the space?
Lucretia is a work supremely out of balance, questioning, like the recently completed Peter Grimes, the very underpinnings of modern society. The heroine is starkly contrasted with her peer group, as fixedly rebellious as Antigone or Elektra, as much of a pariah as Grimes. Ironically, however, her sociopathology is her chastity, a brilliant device from a composer who always wanted to strike at the heart of his era’s Puritanism. Even more of an equivocation is Lucretia’s inner wantonness, seized upon by Livy in the most famous ancient retelling. The entire idea of her violation is put into question by her behavior (even the lascivious Messalina attempted the rape defense) and, as always in this amazing composer, the keys to her character are all there in the instrumental music which accompanies her thoughts and deeds. One is firmly standing on moral quicksand throughout, the afterthought of an ending, emphasizing Christian virtues, begging to be jettisoned like Mozart’s last scene in the original Don Giovanni. Britten may have been a gentlemanly and quiet revolutionary, but he was also a tenaciously committed one.
City Opera has solved the little fish in a big pond problem by electronically “enhancing” their singers, employing an amplification system which allows everyone to emote at their own level of skill and still be heard in the fifth upper tier. I am not a fan of this artificial method, but did grudgingly see its positive side last evening as the cast was thus freed to keep the strain out of their strains of polytonal melody. To a person, these singers appeared to be able to handle the difficult mixture of intimacy and audibility with, amazingly enough, the exact same degree of artistic experience, training and natural gifts. This, of course, is the central problem when technology supplants tradition: all of the singers sound competent, but none truly stand out. Monica Groop, extremely secure in her lower level, and Michael Hendrick, in the ersatz starring role of the male chorus, originally written for Britten’s amanuensis Peter Pears, led the company, but were forbidden by their puppet-master sound engineers from ever soaring to the heights that I suspect they might have been able to reach without such intrusive stereophonic help. Ms. Groop is particularly impressive in the shaping of her tones, employing a rolling breath which heightens the excitement of individual notes as they emerge, the rush of air commencing before the actual note appears, and provided a significant contrast, even within the sarcophagus of the sound system, to her female colleagues whose utterances were consistently flat (not here meaning lower-toned, but rather colorless). Mr. Hendrick was most eloquent, his chatty, almost countertenor tessitura just perfect for a somewhat bitchy representative of the Fates. The rest of the company was unremarkable, Mel Ulrich a solid actor with his body (Britten describes Tarquinius as like a panther), but less secure as a singer, his deep register, meant to express dominance in an alpha male sort of way, less intimidating than one would deem dramatically desirable.
The real star of this performance was the small chamber orchestra led by Daniel Beckwith. This uncompromising score is a difficult one to pull off, with little tonal grounding and an emphasis on ancient modal coloring. The band rose to the occasion by playing each individual line extremely cleanly, allowing the sound from the plucking instruments to drift out into the ether (the pit just escapes the microphones) like wisps of melody carried on prehistoric desert air, Britten’s re-creation of the unique qualities of the cithara enunciated brilliantly.
The production was also highly interesting, building on the musical juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The chorus girl and boy sat on an overstuffed couch in fin-de-siecle dress, characters out of The Strange Death of Liberal England, Ms. Boylan knitting away like a norn. The characters in the drama were up against a semicircular wall which gave that mysterious feel of eternal Rome, timeless and temporal by turns, like the end of the Via Veneto today: one doesn’t quite know which millennium has just turned. Some very intriguing light and shadow effects also punctuated the action.
The New York State Theater was built to house the ballet. Acoustically challenged, it has never been an ideal spot for opera, either chamber or grand. The management of City Opera is seriously considering a radical change of venue (the former site of the World Trade Center is a current possibility) to correct the anomaly. The amplification system is but a band-aid; the patient is haemorrhaging. Until a resolution of this thorny problem can be worked out, it is the audience who is being violated.
Frederick L. Kirshnit