Houston, TX – Houston Grand Opera’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia plays as an incredibly vivid history lecture that skews into a theology lecture before the end of the second act. The action takes place in Rome in approximately 500 B.C., with these scenes taking place on a raked area in the center of the stage. The Male and Female Chorus, as the contemporary professors or historians who might be presenting this lecture, begin the production separated from the action on the flat stage to the side and in front of the Roman area. They eventually move up onto the raked area as if they wish they could step into the action and somehow change it, but are powerless to actually intervene.
In the roles of the Male and Female Chorus, Anthony Dean Griffey and Leah Crocetto rose to the challenge of portraying defined, believable characters in spite of the fact that their roles were those of a traditional Greek chorus – commentary and exposition rather than experience and interaction. Griffey especially seemed to take a journey that paralleled and in some ways was more complete than that of Tarquinius. Griffey sang directly to Tarquinius, almost malevolently, seeming to egg him on throughout act one. In the second act, Griffey portrayed the Male Chorus as grief-stricken over what Tarquinius has done, eventually turning to religion for solace. As the audience does not see Tarquinius again after the rape scene, Griffey’s reactions provide some hope that Tarquinius might regret his actions. Crocetto, on the other hand, was more sympathetic and almost maternal towards the characters throughout. With her colorful, almost metallic lower register, she was especially effective at communicating the ethereal, dream-like quality of the music prior to the rape scene. Griffey was well-suited for Britten, with a voice reminiscent in timbre to that of Peter Pears, but his voice did not always cut through the chamber orchestra.
Michelle DeYoung portrays a tragic and lovely Lucretia, whose physical presence and rich, womanly voice elevated her performance beyond a two-dimensional caricature of a chaste wife. Her brief moment of madness in act two was especially heartbreaking. Jacques Imbrailo’s Tarquinius was booed at the curtain call, but not for any failings on his part. Rather, his successful portrayal of a character with no redeeming qualities was that believable to the audience. Imbrailo handled the reaction with grace and good humor. Studio artist Lauren Snouffer was especially good in the small role of Lucia. She handled Britten’s sometimes unpredictable melodies with ease, singing high notes that come out of nowhere as if it took no effort at all. Her voice has a light color with a focused vibrato, calling to mind the spinning wheel she sang of in her first moments onstage.
Director Arin Arbus effectively avoided letting the show get bogged down by the Chorus’ interruptions to the action. From a narrative perspective, the ending is unsatisfying, mostly because librettist Ronald Duncan attempted to answer the question posed by the Female Chorus after Lucretia’s death – “is it all? Is all this suffering and pain, is it in vain?” – with an appeal to religion that seems pat and unsupported in either the story or the Chorus’ previous commentary. Arbus seems to show the questions this raises by having the very last beat of the show be the Female Chorus looking out at the audience, skeptical of the Male Chorus’ appeal to a higher power and still horrified by what she has witnessed. In the director’s notes, Ms. Arbus suggests that the ending reflects a method of coping with the horrors witnessed in London during World War II. The Female Chorus, perhaps, reflects the fear and disappointment that comes with examining this coping method and finding it wanting.
Photos: Felix Sanchez
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