Emma Char (Lucretia) and Jasper Leever (Collatinus) ​

Photo courtesy of Toronto Summer Music

THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA: a daring return of opera to the Toronto Summer Music Festival


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Review by David Richards
Toronto July 23, 2016

Even before the opening jarring chords of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, it was evident that the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre would be in for a bold, innovative and imaginative production of this disturbing work. The bare brick wall of the backstage of the intimate theatre lay exposed to the audience and the orchestra of only twelve musicians took their places on stage in full view. There were no sets. The opera was stripped of any peripherals in order to focus on the raw emotion of the tragedy.

The work, produced at the Banff Centre, was a wonderful collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Summer Music, and Against the Grain Theatre.

The story is simple enough beginning with three army officers sitting around a campfire talking about the unfaithful wives back in Rome. Only one, Lucretia (Emma Char), has been chaste. Tarquinius (Iain MacNeil), the Etruscan prince of Rome, is goaded into riding into Rome to test Lucretia’s faithfulness. He subsequently rapes her and she commits suicide out of guilt and shame. Both Char and NacNeil play their roles convincingly. Char’s desperation when victimized is heart-wrenching. MacNeil’s character is a menacing rapist forcing his will and displaying his power.

The background, storyline and commentary in the opera is given by Male Chorus Owen McCausland and Female Chorus Cheslea Rus. Dressed as if speaking to a church congregation, they try to give a Christian spin on the story. They are emotionally involved in the characters, often hovering over them as if to warn of the impending tragedy. They console each other while commenting on the action. Both sang with great dramatic impact and lyrical beauty even if the pace of Britten’s score made it difficult to catch all of their lines.

The opera gives a truly ensemble experience for the cast of eight singers. Each plays a vital part and has opportunities to display both character and voice. Beste Kalender was superb in her role of Lucretia’s wise nurse, Bianca. Ellen McAteer , the flighty maid Lucia was at her best in her comic moments. Jasper Leever (Collatinus) and Peter Rolfe Dauz (Junius) gave very earthy performances as Roman generals, Collatinus the aggrieved husband of Lucretia and Junius, the ambitious schemer.  

Originally directed in Banff by Paul Curran, last night’s TSM production was brilliantly staged by Anna Theodosakis, a rising and talented operatic stage director. The resulting opera was in keeping with the spirit of Against the Grain Theatre, a chamber opera company with a mandate to exhibit fresh, daring re-interpretations of classical repertoire often in non-traditional spaces. The story of ancient Rome was updated to the WWII time frame with nondescript period costumes. The minimalist props consisted of only a few beer crates, bed sheets, and a basket of flowers. By giving the physical, believable acting an equal place along side Britten’s musical score Ivany achieved a visceral impact.

The orchestra, led by the brilliant young conductor Topher Mokrzewski, played with dramatic intensity and precision. Never out of balance with the singers, the orchestra added feverish tension and at times a delicate intimacy to the work.

The opera’s topic of rape is constantly in front of us in the news. In Thursday’s Toronto Star, Catherine Porter reported on the rape trial of the now convicted rapist, Mustafa Ururyar. That same day, the CEO of Fox News resigned in the wake of an internal investigation into his sexual harassment of women in the organization. Yesterday, it was reported that sex offender Graham James was seeking full parole.

In last night’s production, the rape was the consequence of a lust for power, greed and corruption. The powerful performance re-iterated in a centuries old story the tragedy of victimization that carries on in Toronto today. Congratulations to TSMF for giving voice to this message.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival continues through August 7th with daily concerts, recitals, and masterclasses.