27 March 2011

Britten in Berkeley 1: Tragedy

Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival Opera paid a visit to Berkeley this week, bringing two of Britten’s chamber operas for two performances each: The Rape of Lucretia (I was at the Friday performance) and Albert Herring (I was at last night’s performance). I had been looking forward to these performances, but found them both a bit disappointing, and not just because I was apparently one of the few in attendance who paid anything close to full price (and not just because Zellerbach is exactly the wrong hall for chamber opera, which matters less when you sit as close as I like to).

I had seen Lucretia a few years ago in a knock-out performance in Philadelphia (my reactions are here). I saw it twice and could happily have sat through it a third time. The intensity was much less at the Berkeley performance, and to make comparisons easier, it turned out this was exactly the same production (stage direction by William Kerley) that I saw back east. The first-act close, the menacing and ritualistic repetition of “good night” by Tarquin and Lucretia and her attendants, which was so powerful in Philadelphia, seemed – not quite redundant, but certainly less harrowing.

Some of the business has changed – the Female Chorus no longer glares angrily so often at the Male Chorus, for one thing. The unfortunate idea of dressing the Male and Female Chorus as sort of television evangelists was retained, though the Male Chorus (Vale Rideout, with Arianna Zukerman as the Female Chorus) threw the Bible around more than a preacher should.

I would have preferred seeing the Male and Female Chorus treated with more depth because the double narration of the opera – the Christian framework around the classical tableau – is one of the most fascinating aspects of this opera, and one of several dichotomies (male/female, Etruscan/Roman, military camp/domestic life) that the viewer has to bridge. I had some thoughts on this in my Philadelphia entry, so I won’t go into it much here. But the basic question of why good people suffer was clearly ripe for renewed interrogation in 1946, when this opera was written, and Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan, give us the opportunity by uniting the two main cultural traditions of Europe, the Classical and the Christian, which had either culminated in or been perverted by the murderous violence of the two world wars, and having each tradition confront a terrible act of violence.

The singers were mostly very good. Vale Rideout and Arianna Zukerman as the Male and Female Chorus were both committed, and Michael Rice as Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, brought a lot of depth and anguish to his part. Michael Weyandt as Junius and Matthew Worth as Tarquinius were both very good, but the latter was not as subtle or complex as Nathan Gunn was in Philly. Both female attendants were also excellent – Alison Tupay was Bianca and Marnie Breckenridge, fresh off her local triumph as the Princess in Glass’s Orphee, was Lucia.

That brings us to Ekaterina Metlova as Lucretia. I thought she was the weak link in the cast, which is obviously a problem in an opera called The Rape of Lucretia. I feel the same pain in disliking her that I felt when discussing Jane Eaglen: much as I dislike what she’s doing, she’s clearly committed and trying her best; it’s just that she moves clumsily and is not a very good actress. The simple dignity and depth that Tamara Mumford had in Philadelphia were replaced by acting that was ostentatiously “operatic” in the wrong way: outward and self-dramatizing. Metlova played the first half like Dalila and the second half like Lucia; at no point did I feel she was like Lucretia.

The backstage conversations were clearly audible through much of the performance. And there was weirdness going on in the audience, too, particularly in the second half, and particularly in the front row of the far right. A large woman came and sat down in the aisle seat and a man in the row kept saying something loudly to her (this was during the performance). She kept getting up and then coming back. And during the rape scene, the blubbery child in the row – I’m guessing she was around 11, and I’m guessing it was a she based entirely on the white sweatshirt with a large picture of a patchwork heart and teddy bears that she was wearing – started laughing very loudly, and then slowly and solemnly took her right index finger and thrust it up each of her nostrils, one after the other. Shortly after that they stormed out, appalled by either the rape or their own behavior, and the rest of us could be disappointed in the performance in peace. I can’t imagine why they were there in the first place – why would anyone bring a child of that age and maturity level to something called The Rape of Lucretia?


Civic Center said...

I snickered during the rape scene too. As my friend Charlie put it, when the Lucretia and Tarquinius disappear behind the upended bed, all you could see were occasional body parts flailing about like a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That scene was very powerful in the Philadelphia production. I blame the acting (mostly from the Lucretia) in this production.