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Britten Series Ends in Triumph

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
02/03/2012 -  and Feb 5, 7, 9, 11, 2012
Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia, opus 37
Anthony Dean Griffey (Male Chorus), Leah Crocetto (Female Chorus), Ryan McKinny (Collatinus), Joshua Hopkins (Junius), Jacques Imbrailo (Tarquinius), Michelle DeYoung (Lucretia), Judith Forst (Bianca), Lauren Snouffer (Lucia)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Rory Macdonald (conductor)
Arin Arbus (director), Jean-Guy Lecat (set designer), Anita Yavich (costume designer), Michael James Clark (lighting designer)

M. DeYoung, R. McKinny (© Felix Sanchez)

Houston Grand Opera's impressively consistent run of five Benjamin Britten operas, initiated with a stunning Billy Budd in 2008, reaches a delicate, understatedly potent conclusion in this production of The Rape of Lucretia. With a smart, economic visual design, thoughtful casting and excellent leadership and execution from the pit, this is a home run. It is a bittersweet triumph, as there are many other treasures from this composer's pen deserving production on the Brown Theater stage, but we must celebrate the series' high points, of which there are many, and look forward to further explorations by this fine company.

Any pitfalls in visual design are smartly avoided by a striking yet simple one-piece set. Time-appropriate and providing many visual levels on which the action can unfold, the ruined columns in front of a more solid-looking brick structure are an apt visual metaphor for many of the characters' constitutions. Likewise, the costumes for the Male and Female Choruses flank the stage in a neutral grey, the togaed main characters interacting in the middle. Lighting design is also simple, but very smart, and in all this production runs flawlessly from start to finish. There is thankfully no attempt to transfer the action to another time or place, but to let it speak for itself from its natural habitat.

Vocally, there isn't a weak link in the cast. It is impossible not to draw comparisons to Britten's own English Opera Group casting, for which the piece was composed. Anthony Dean Griffey, so impressive as Peter Grimes last season, continues the powerful Peter Pears-Philip Langridge tradition. Like his forebears, the voice is flexible and light yet penetrating, and has a distinctive tinge to it. He is capable of more raw power than, say, Ian Bostridge, and this is a necessity in the more dramatic moments in this opera. He is counterbalanced nicely by Leah Crocetto, whose voice is perhaps less pitch-perfect, but who makes up for it with wonderful inflections and effective acting.

The attractive couple of Ryan McKinny's Collatinus and Michelle DeYoung's Lucretia comes off as the Brangelina of Etruscan Rome. Powerful, pure and faithfully devoted to one another, they invoke both respect and envy from their fellow citizens. DeYoung does the role proud, standing on the shoulders of the likes of Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. Lucretia is as difficult to act as to sing. She can come across as weak and difficult to pity, but DeYoung's stature and confidence provide ample friction against the inevitability of her fate. Ryan McKinny emerges as a potent, fully-formed artist after several smaller roles at HGO. Again, positive comparisons can be made to John Shirley-Quirk, both being not only effective technical singers but thoroughly convincing actors. The chemistry between the two is tangible, and the sudden destruction of their innocence is powerfully portrayed.

Judith Forst is another wonderful Britten voice. Her deep, rich voice and matriarchal presence impress here as they did in The Turn of the Screw. A wonderful surprise was found in Lauren Snouffer's clarion, vibrant Lucia. Giddily naive and vocally resplendent, she was a highlight of the ensemble numbers. I'm confident that she will be another soprano star from the Houston Grand Opera studio. Jacques Imbrailo's Tarquinius was more seductive vocally in the second act and truly unhinged leading into the rape scene, while Joshua Hopkins' Junius, while not especially distinctive, held his own in the male trio and was successful in providing the right emotional bridge between Collatinus and Tarquinius.

Britten's chamber orchestration is incredibly complex, but was played with precision by the members of the HGO orchestra. Rory Macdonald kept ensemble numbers together perfectly, and the players and conductor relished Britten's coloristic effects, from ambient pizzicato double bass glissandos to sinewy, haunting alto flute lines to pungent stopped and muted horn solos. Joan Eidman deserves special mention for her flawless, virtuosic performance of the extravagant and omnipresent harp part in the score.

The Rape of Lucretia ends HGO's Britten series with an ellipsis instead of an exclamation point, but that is all for the better. Britten will inevitably return to the stage, and one hopes that many of the singers heard in this and previous productions will return as well and triumph yet again.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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