With this last weekend's performances of Benjamin Britten's The Rape Of Lucretia, the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre marks its third production staged in UT's Carousel Theatre since last spring, and the result was stunning. Although Britten differs in almost every way imaginable from Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro last spring) and Puccini (La Boheme last fall), this production has achieved something always sought, but not always accomplished--an exhilarating, sublime combination of music, storytelling, and environment that was a true theatrical success.
Director James Marvel, along with the UT School of Music singers and instrumentalists, and the theatrical design student-collaborators, have become quite comfortable with adapting and manipulating Carousel Theatre's in-the-round spatial arrangement into an intimate thrust-style concept that gives half of it to the audience and half to the stage and backstage/orchestra area. This concept clearly has an air of excitement, improvisation, and experimentation about it that seems to work well with the contemporary, as well as the contemporized, works. There's probably something to that cliché that inevitably cropped up in the old Andy Hardy films: "My uncle has a barn. Let's put on a show!" In the case of UT Opera, though, the uncle's barn has been turned into a marvelous canvas for music and theatre professionals.
The theatrical success of this production almost allows one to overlook the largest flaw of The Rape of Lucretia -- the libretto by Ronald Duncan based on André Obey's 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrece. Structurally, Duncan bypasses a lot of essential character motivation and historical context, leaving a somewhat shaky foundation for the original story. Even more shaky is the narration's suggestion that one view the story as a metaphor for the specifically noted Christian concepts of sinfulness and redemption; the powerful story certainly does not need this out-of-context religious heavy-handedness. It all seems even more bizarre when one learns that Britten was known in his life as a conflicted atheist. One can only hope that there was some specific, timely reason for it at the moment of the work's creation.
As usual, the UTOT production was double cast, split over the four performances. In a score that is noticeably difficult in range, dynamics, and personality, there were definite vocal standouts. Nevertheless, both casts were dramatically solid, a testament to the talent level and the stage and musical experience they are acquiring under Marvel and the School of Music faculty.
The roles of the "Male Chorus" and "Female Chorus" as narrators and instigators are fundamental to the Greek-style commentary nature of the piece. Friday's Boris Van Druff and Linda Barnett clearly understood this and painted abstract, yet vibrant, characters, as well as offering penetrating vocal power and dramatic strength. Van Druff's ability to effortlessly move from heated emotion to sotto voce lyricism was impressive. Saturday's pair, Marshall Rollings and Jennifer Sohl were less energetic, but were beautifully crystalline and precise in their poetic depictions.
Dallas Noelle Norton's Lucretia was another standout for this reviewer, not just in her marvelous vocal performance, but in the subtle visual depiction of the character through movement and bearing. Sarah Fitch, on Saturday, sang a beautifully lyrical Lucretia as well, and was imminently comfortable, and poetic, with the obvious physical demands of the role.
The baritone role of Tarquinius was handled with marvelous physical strength by Scott Beasley and Ryan Olson, with Aaron Dunn taking all four performances of Junius. The roles of Lucretia's servants were taken by Caitlin Bolden and Julie Bélanger Roy (Bianca) and Madeline Veenker and Sydney Gabbard (Lucia). The bass role of Collatinus demonstrated the rich vocal power of Ian Richardson and the dramatic creativity of Peter Johnson.
Music director and conductor Kevin Class kept Britten's instrumental textures nicely descriptive and well-balanced between ambience and musical statement, especially considering from his backstage position, he would have no idea what the audience would be hearing.
Equal partners in the success of this production were the visual contributors--scenic designer Joseph Reynoso; lighting designer Timothy Hart; costume designer Joscelyne Oktabetz; and projection designer S. Katy Tucker. Hart has especially perfected his Carousel Theatre efforts; the delineation of the characters through lighting was well thought out, with wise use of patterns to add shadow and interest. Clearly, the special efforts to keep the Male and Female Chorus separated by color and angle from the rest of the singers, and from the background, was particularly important for the success of the concept. The simplicity of Reynoso's platform and translucent background, and Tucker's kinetic video background visuals, perfectly complemented and directed the action.