Saturday, June 13, 2009

Intensity! 'Rape of Lucretia' Review

Wow. Where to begin.

Rape of Lucretia was SO INTENSE. To say it was fabulous doesn't capture the fabulous intensity of the performance.

After seeing it, I poked about online for reviews. I found that people were not committing as to whether or not they liked it, but they had criticisms, such as, the production didn't portray what Britten had in mind, or, Nathan Gunn is too nice to play Tarquinius. Like here. (BTW, readers, scroll to the bottom of that post - the author claims to be composing a new opera that Mr. Gunn will be in? Don't know who the author is or how reliable a source the message board is, but there you have it.) For my part, well, I don't know what Britten had in mind, I never saw another production of the opera, and what does someone being nice have to do with his ability to act? All these reviews were so full of background information about other productions of the opera that at first I felt a little intimidated, like, who am I to go and analyze this complex opera that I've seen only once and haven't heavily researched? Then the other voice in my head said, "Who are you? You are someone who saw an incredibly intense opera performance. Just write about your experience." Sometimes that other voice makes sense... so here I am.

First of all, it was totally cool to hang out with Banawoman. We had a fabulous dinner at Estia before the show. Grilled octopus... FAB FAB FAB! I think I should try to have octopus before every opera I attend. There's a lofty goal. I also had this fabulous drink that was garnished with an edible orchid.

So of course I ate it.

At the theater we ran into someone we know from online. I didn't ask for permission to identify him here on the blog so I won't. But it was really great to meet this person, he was totally charming and adorable and he was sitting directly in front of me.

Ok so the opera itself.

My ticket was in row D. Fourth row, right? Nope. Second row. Eep! Right in the middle, too, directly behind the conductor. But he didn't block my view of the stage because the orchestra pit really was a pit. Before it began I stood up and took a pic with my phone so I could show you all the view and the stark sparseness of it all. (Is that redundant?) This isn't directly in front of my seat. Some people were standing there and I wasn't about to ask them to move so I could sneak a photo, so I moved over a few seats to the right.

There was a platform on the stage, set perpendicular to the lines of the stage, and upstage really was up. It doesn't come across in the photo but it looked very steep, like you could easily slide off into the pit. And as you can see, most of the (small) orchestra was underneath the stage. There was a little camera aimed at the conductor for the video feed for any offstage singing that goes on where the singers can't see him. I no doubt showed up in the video feed as I was right behind the conductor. I've watched that feed myself from backstage while supering and you can clearly see the people directly behind the conductor.

So the opera is told by the male and female chorus - chorus is a confusing term as just one person played each role. Bill Burden was the Male Chorus. The Male Chorus is a preacher who relates what takes place in Christian terms. It's hard to explain. But he told the story about Tarquinias. The Female Chorus, Karen Jesse, was dressed in capris and a sweater - as if that's what she put on that morning. She told Lucretia's tale. Throughout the opera the two of them gave each other these weird looks, mostly like she was glaring at him. I thought it would be resolved in the end but it wasn't, as far as I could tell.

The house lights were still lit and people were chatting when the Male Chorus came on stage and sat down. If you look at that picture... the space to the left of the platform gets bigger, as you can imagine. Not that big, but big enough for a little desk and chair, and I think a filing cabinet. That's generally where he stayed. Not always, but mostly. So he was there, looking at what I assume was a bible, and then the house lights went down and the orchestra began. There was no overture really. He started singing pretty much right away, setting the story. And here's the story:

The Etruscans ruled Rome. They loved beauty but also loved to kill. So they made all this beautiful art but were also ruthless. Tarquinias was the son of the emperor, in other words, the prince. His two generals, Junius and Collatinus, were Roman. As The Male Chorus introduces them, they come on stage. Tarquinius is carrying a horse's bridle and is wearing this horse armor thing over his upper arm. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to see it) While they were out at soldiering about, (drinking in camp) they sent a scout to town to see what the wives were up to. So they were reading letters that they got from the Male Chorus. It was interesting to have the M & F Choruses narrate in the present but also interact with the characters. It was cool. I didn't expect it. The characters didn't acknowledge the Chorus but they got props from them. Ok so the letters listed what the wives were up to. Junius' wife Patricia was found "getting a massage." Right. Collatinus' wife, Lucretia, was found at home with her maids. Now, back then the chastity of the wives was directly related to the status of the husband. So Junius is all upset that his wife was found cheating on him, and goes off about how all women are whores. It doesn't help that they've all been drinking and that Tarquinias is totally making fun of Junius over this. Who said Mr Gunn is too nice to play this role? My reaction to Tarquinias' behavior was, "What a jerk." Actually, Mr. Gunn's "Mr. Nice-Guy" reputation was no where to be found during the entire performance. So anyway Junius is like, all women are whores, and Tarquinias replies that no, not all, for Lucretia is chaste. They get into a fight, hurling insults and brandishing knives, and Collatinus breaks it up. The two guys point out to Tarquinias that he really can have no opinion on the matter given that he's single and the women he sleeps with are willing whores. That strikes some kind of chord in him and he becomes almost obsessed with Lucretia. She is a challenge. He gets a swatch of cloth from the Female Chorus and inhales it with pleasure. He seriously is rubbing this thing all over his face and through his hands, thinking about Lucretia. It's kind of creepy. Here's that shot from the newspaper article I linked to in an earlier post.

Junius tells him that Lucretia is a whore just like the rest of him. Tarquinius insists that no she's not, she's beautiful and she's chaste and he can prove it. Junius says something like, "You wouldn't dare," but at that point Tarquinias is so obsessed all he can think about is seducing her. He's the prince, right, so he's used to getting what he wants when he wants it. Totally self-centered and all that. He is so excited to get to her that he grabs his horse and just goes without properly saddling her up. At this point I must point out, in case you haven't noticed, that we've been hearing the words "whores" and "horse" a lot. Go ahead, say them out loud. And then, there's Tarquinias, sleeping around and carrying that bridal with him like a security blanket everywhere he goes.

Now he's SO EAGER to get to Rome - the Male Chorus is singing about how he whips the horse and goes as fast as possible. Meanwhile Tarquinius has come out of that door with a leather strap around him - it's attached to something backstage. It lets him out across the stage and then he's leaning and straining against it. Like, if the strap broke he would have gone sprawling right into the Male Chorus, who was right in front of him. You could really see the desire, the lust and the obsession in his face, in his body - he wanted to be there and he wanted to be there NOW. I think I was digging my fingernails into my palms just knowing that he was on his way to rape her.

Next we see Lucretia in her home with her nursemaid Bianca and her maid Lucia. The Female Chorus narrates here. They are at the spinning wheels and Lucretia (Tamara Mumford) sings about how she misses her husband, and how unfair it is that men teach women about passion and then leave. Then there's this whole strange (too long?) bit about how women must fold linen... to me it symbolized that women keep the home, hold it together, while the men are out fighting. Like, it doesn't seem important - what's the big deal about folding linen? But it's the home, and without a woman, there'd be no home. She comes across one of her husband's shirts and she holds it to her breast with such affection, you could really see how much she loved and missed him. Tamara Mumford was excellent. Beautiful, rich voice, so expressive, and so beautiful all in white.

Ok so then Tarquinius bangs on the door and asks for lodging because his horse is lame. This confuses and upsets Lucretia - modesty dictates that he not be there, but hospitality dictates that she must give him lodging. There is a fabulous, fabulous scene where the three women are bidding him goodnight. Lucretia is very firm. The nursemaid Bianca, sung by (have to look it up) is wonderfully rude "in that polite way that servants can be rude" sings the Female Chorus. The other maid, Lucia, wonderfully played by Rinnat Moriah, was all flirty and excited to have the prince in the house. It was wonderful the way they were all singing the same words but were all sending very different messages. So finally they finish their goodnights and go to bed.


Intermission? How? What? You mean, stand up, go out into the lobby, go into a bright bathroom, converse with people, when meanwhile you know that Lucretia is about to get raped? How can there be intermission?

Next act opens to this:

Again, a view from my seat, so you can see the orchestra pit as well as the slanted stage. And a bed. Lucretia's bed, surrounded by a curtain. The house lights went down and there were these lights from the balcony sweeping the audience. Then we see the two maids, one on each side, each with one of the men. I think it was Collatinus to my left and Junius to my right. Banawoman thought Collatinus was to the right and Tarquinius was to the left. I don't think T. was up there at all, because it wouldn't have made sense. They had flashlights and held them up to their chins as they sang, kind of like they were telling ghost stories around a campfire. I don't remember the exact words but basically it was a chant like, "Down with Etruscan, Hooray for the Romans..." It was creepy and tense and you could see Lucretia on the bed and you knew she was going to be raped... Ohmygod it was awful. I mean that in a good way. The tension was incredible. And it got worse.

Tarquinius enters and basically laughs at an "impotent" bust of Collatinus, which was actually the singer standing behind a pedestal, goes past the sleeping nursemaid and up to the bed. The Male Chorus describes him like a panther as he stalks around the bed. The Female Chorus is on stage urging Lucretia to wake up. The Male Chorus is there telling Tarquinius to stop. He leans in to kiss her through the gauze. She's still asleep and thinks it's Collatinus so she responds and puts her arm around him, but then she wakes up and is horrified. She's pushing back at the curtain and he's trying to get in, he's like, "You have lust, don't deny it," and she keeps singing, "I deny it, I deny it..." it's just awful. Then... he gets mad. *shudder* He grabs the curtains and just YANKS them away to the floor. Ohmygod it was awful and I'm getting weepy again writing about it. He gets on top of her and tries to kiss her, she pushes him off. I forget which one of them picked the bed up onto its side - I think she did but I'm not sure. So the bed is now up on its edge, mattress facing the audience. My heart is pounding as I write this. I didn't want to watch yet I couldn't stop watching. He grabs the horse bridle (remember, he carries it everywhere) and ties her hands with it, then he drags her over behind the bed and rapes her from behind. You could see the upper half of their bodies. You can see her sort of lurch forward in shock... He's crying out in ecstasy, "Lucretia! Lucretia!" and meanwhile there is such a look of pain and horror on her face - it was so difficult to witness. And remember I was in the 2nd row so I was witnessing this from like 15 feet away. I'm getting all upset typing it. I'm crying now as I was crying last night watching. After that heart-wrenching scene he pushes her to the ground behind the bed and you can see his boots sticking out from behind, so you know he's not done with her. It was just... awful... Then he drags the bed off stage, and she must have been inside it because she wasn't on stage after that. Was he dragging her back to his chamber? Was that it, or did he rape her all night long? It's unbearable to think about.

As an almost inappropriate aside here, the costume - he was in a sleeveless undershirt (a "beater?") with this harness around his chest that showed off all his muscles. And he was still wearing that horse thing on his arm. But those arm muscles - I couldn't stop looking at his friggin' muscles. So every now and then part of my mind would leak out of the story and into reality and think, "Look at his arms! WOW!" and then, "OMG he's raping her, stop it, this is awful." I was attracted and repulsed at the same time. And I wonder if that wasn't the goal, in a sense. There was this vague sense of the erotic under all the violence. I'm not really describing it right - because there's nothing erotic or attractive about rape - but the way he played the character... argh I don't have the words to describe. I wanted to stop looking but I couldn't stop looking. Meanwhile the M&F chorus are off to the side, visibly upset. I think the Female Chorus really was crying.

So I'm sure I wasn't alone in being totally horrified, even though we knew the rape was inevitable... and then the next scene - done on purpose, of course - the juxtaposition of the maids happily gathering flowers the next morning in a pit they revealed under a panel in the flooring. Lucretia staggers out and the nursemaid figures out what happened pretty quickly. Lucretia is singing about her shame... shame... shame... thinking of herself as a whore... crumbles a red rose...the acting was superb but at this point I felt the libretto moved too quickly, like time sped up. She sends a messenger, the nursemaid tells the young maid not to, but it's too late... Collatinus comes in, she confesses, he assures her that she is still chaste because she was not there in spirit... she's like, it doesn't matter... I can't live with the shame... she grabs a knife... falls onto it into the flower pit and dies. The M&F Chorus end the story with a "What have we learned" and they related it to Christianity as rose petals shower the stage. Then suddenly it was over. I was exhausted. It was so intense and so wonderful and so awful (in a good way) that I was just exhausted.

The music was haunting. It was weird and beautiful and strange and wonderful. The singing was superb. Everyone in the cast - what fabulous actors. I was seriously blown away by the entire production. And contrary to the "experts," Mr. All-American-Nice Guy Gunn swaggered around that stage and convinced me that he was a selfish, self-absorbed jerk used to getting what he wants. It can't be easy to play that part, but he didn't just pull it off - he owned the role. That rape scene - Ohmygod. Horrifying. Tarquinias in ecstasy and Lucretia in agony ... I swear there was a collective gasp from the audience as we realized what was happening.

I'm sure I left out lots of good stuff. I told Banawoman that she will have to post a comment with her thoughts/impressions/stuff I forgot or misinterpreted so no doubt we'll get that from her within the week.

After the performance we walked around the neighborhood a bit to sort of unwind ourselves. So no, to those of you who were wondering, there was no in-person Gunn-encounter. Not to say we didn't sort of keep an eye out in our wanderings, because of course we did, but we weren't out prowling. We finally made our way to the hotel, stopping at a convenience store on the way for ice cream and cracker jacks to help us recover.

Today, in between torrential downpours, we wandered down to Independence Hall, saw the Liberty Bell, went to an exhibition about Charles Darwin and saw another about Benjamin Franklin. Look! The glass armonica!

We also went to Reading Terminal Market and of course tried to move some Very Big Rocks.

Ahhh another fufilling operatic adventure!!! And I survived without any Embarrassing Encounters! (sort of wistful about that, go figure...)


Banawoman said...

What? Trying to move rocks in public isn't embarrassing enough for you?

Great review! I can't think of what you might have left out. It was like having our own opera experience in our living room. The music and voices right straining to hear, or God forbid, candy wrappers. No opera glasses--what luxury! Of course, the intimacy only increased the stomach-churning tension.

I was blown away by the difference between listening to Britten's music and seeing this performance. To my neophyte ear, this postwar music sounded at first discordant and self-consciously artsy. In this spare, elegant production it was stunning.

I'm still in a daze, punctuated by moments of amazed joy that I got to be there. Susan--you were the frosting on the cake!

Susan said...

One thing I left out was something you brought up yesterday - how they moved in unison for some scenes. Like when the three men first came on stage and all turned at once... and when the Female Chorus mirrored Lucretia's movements, and also she walked with them with candles when they were going off to bed. It was all very graceful. The M&F Chorus were part of the action but not really because the characters didn't seem to see them.

Frosting! Awww thanks! Which reminds me - Cake!! Did we have cake? Honey-soaked walnut cake! And those almond crescents with the edges dipped in chocolate! And I brought home all those honey and rosewater soaked cakes from the middle-eastern bakery. OMG I'm drooling. Next time I'm getting the Nutella crepe!

I'm still in a daze too. I've reread this post about 50 times today. In fact, I just might write a new post about that.

Susan said...

Just noticed that I went back and forth on the spelling. Tarquinius and Tarquinias. Should have stuck to Tarq.

Banawoman said...

T-A-R-Q: The Adorable Roué in Question.

Susan said...

Nice vocab word. I had to look it up.

Examsdiva said...

Somehow the word "roue" conjures up the image of Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, strolling through the park and singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

Susan said...

That's not bad considering that at first I confused it with "roux" and wondered what a flour and butter sauce had to do with any of it.

Banawoman said...

Because he's "Buttah."

tcarstetter said...

To think Mr. Gunn possesses such electrifying force and command of acting and passion intense!! I read your post,and you said you had difficulty perceiving the Christian symbolism woven into the opera's plot. Having studied theology for three years now,I think I could help you out,if you want.