Sometimes one escapes from the real world in the theatre, diverted from life. And sometimes theatre is such a perfect mirror that it reminds us of the craziness we’re seeing everywhere else.
That latter choice –finding the craziness of the world in the theatre—is what I experienced tonight at the Winter Garden Theatre watching Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.
I think I understand this opera better from seeing what Against the Grain (in collaboration with Banff Festival & the Canadian Opera Company, presenting it this time under the auspices of Toronto Summer Music Festival, whew how’s that for a preamble) came up with. Or to put it another way, how should one feel after the events of this opera, wherein we see a pushy nobleman of Ancient Rome seizing what’s not his, jealous of a near-perfect relationship, leading the wronged wife to kill herself.
While I have never felt closure or completeness at the end of this opera before, always attributing that messed up feeling to the composer’s shortcomings, I now see that hey: we should be messed up. This is a very messed up world we’re seeing –not unlike our own—and at the end we can’t feel closure, not even the closure one has when we see Rodolfo sobbing over Mimi or Jose confessing he’s killed his Carmen. This isn’t a neat tidy bundle.
Owen McCausland as the male chorus bore a large part of the burden of that mess. Every other production I’ve seen tries to make sense of that ending, with its platitudes and professions of faith, pointing us to a brighter day tomorrow. McCausland seems to be breaking down, shattered by what he’s seen and felt, and sounding less like the brave pillar than a confused and lost soul, and in so doing, making those lines sound real for once. In the process I think we see a transformation into what the chorus (male and female) can and should be, namely the conscience of the work.
I now really get that scene with the flowers, where Lucretia’s maids are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the beauty of the morning, the most over-the-top rendition of this I’ve ever seen, and it came beautifully into focus watching Lucretia stagger onto the stage.
Let me ask you, have you ever had one of those days when it’s stunningly beautiful outside, but you feel depressed or lost or sad, and can see that none of that positive stuff can reach you, as though you’re somehow freezing in the hot sun? That’s what we saw tonight, as Emma Char blankly enters, in the face of the ridiculously joyful antics of her maids, played by Beste Kalender and Ellen McAteer. Here and elsewhere we’re less in the presence of operatic virtuosity for its own sake, and instead deep inside the drama. The moments a bit later, between Kalender and Char, are astonishingly touching. For certain kinds of drama music-theatre or opera have far greater power, as we saw in that scene.
Jasper Leever as Collatinus, the husband of Lucretia, had been a gently macho presence, to counter-balance Iain MacNeil’s tyrannical Tarquinius. While I was less convinced in the first act scene between the men, I was drawn in gradually. The scenes that one might expect to be the most difficult –thinking really of the last scenes of the opera, when we see the rape, Lucretia’s death and the aftermath—were the best. [morning after addition: I realize now –and after facebook chatting last night with AtG’s Joel Ivany– that I have been remiss in failing to properly celebrate both Leever and Peter Rolfe Dauz as Junius. In the aftermath Junius is the one who will avenge Tarquinius’ crime, but not out of passion but political opportunism, cleverly packaged in the clothing of self-righteousness. And Leever as Collatinus is totally destroyed, the other victim with Char as Lucretia. The stage picture at the end is messy, and no one is more messed up than Collatinus, rightfully, contemplating Lucretia’s body. I knew this intuitively last night when i chose to lead with that stunning photo of Leever’s great wounded face, alongside Char’s body. The arc of that ensemble, the two men from their first scene to the last, is one of the great joys of the production.]
I think I read somewhere that this is a semi-staged production, but I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Yes we had a visible ensemble sharing the stage with the singers and little or no set, but we’re in a meta-theatrical world, watching characters sing while male and/or female chorus walk in between them and comment or react. They’re singing with this ensemble, so how real could it ever really be? I would say that the attempts to enact “realism” (whatever that is understood to be) sometimes founder on their own contradictions, as various elements call attention to the illusion.
The star of the show for me was Topher Mokrzewski, the music director, who sometimes planted his baton between his lips while playing subtle accompaniment while standing at the piano, then stepping back to lead the ensemble, who sounded amazing. Britten was the beneficiary of this fabulous, gentle account of a score that was always shimmering with transparency, dramatically taut. Words were never obscured even though at times I wondered if we would have been better off with surtitles; but the important lines came through clearly. I think Topher is ready to conduct at the Canadian Opera Company or at the Toronto Symphony. Young dynamic talent? Nezet-Seguin is taken (busy busy now in Philadelphia and at the Met), but there’s also Topher. We need him in Toronto, when he’s not conducting or playing out west.
As one who’s been watching too much CNN, caught up in too many political comments on social media, I found the same crazy world here, the politics that reflect unresolved passions and unhappiness writ large.
I have to ask parenthetically, is the director Paul Curran who directed this show a few days ago in Banff? Or Anna Theodosakis, who has the credit in the program? On the website of MetroYouth Opera –where Theodosakis directed this opera a couple of months ago in a very different interpretation—they say this:
This summer Theodosakis will be the assistant director for Paul Curran’s production of The Rape of Lucretia at The Banff Centre
And Emma Char in her recent interview identified him as “Paul Curran, our director at the Banff Centre”.
So the same cast presents the opera a few days later, and it’s no longer Paul Curran’s? I’m confused.
But my confusion isn’t the sense of “messed up” I was speaking of. I am really speaking of the complexities of the production, its willingness to stir us in several directions: no matter who directed it.