Whenever an opera company sets out to try something different, it’s probably wise to advance cautiously.
“The Rape of Lucretia,” which opened Opera Memphis’ inaugural Midtown Opera Festival on Thursday night, represents a tentative if welcome step into the modern repertoire. Benjamin Britten’s 1946 opera is a solid 50 years younger than this season’s opener, “La Boheme,” and a good century later than “The Elixir of Love,” seen in February.
Both of those previous shows, presented at the 800-seat Germantown Performing Arts Centre, had traditional operagoers in mind — folks who expect a certain scenic and sonic grandeur.
But at under half the size of GPAC, Playhouse on the Square’s auditorium places new expectations on singers, designers and even listeners.
It allows performers who don’t necessarily have out-and-out volume — such as William Ferguson as the Male Chorus — to lean in and deliver crisp exposition in the dramatic whisper of a storyteller. Conversely, it permits the big-voiced Allison Sanders, as the Female Chorus, to explore the tender middle ground of her range. Her lovely, streaming vibrato bathes the audience in warmth. On the traditional end of the operatic spectrum, baritone Matthew Curran, as the Roman soldier Collatinus, penetrates every crevice in the room with his vocal strength.
Britten coined the phrase “chamber opera” for this tragedy which employs a pared-down orchestra and was designed to tour around wartime England. This set design, too, could fit in a U-Haul: white drapes evoke Roman columns and a small movable set piece has steps on one side and a ramp on the other.
Costume designer Janice Benning Lacek gives the soldiers an olive-drab midcentury military look, possibly English, though the evil Tarquinius (a tall and sinister Matthew Worth) has an overcoat that suggests the Gestapo. The female characters, however, are arrayed in more antiquarian dress.
There might have been a more coherent staging concept on the part of director Ned Canty, but then, this production, along with the festival as a whole, is about straddling old and new worlds.
Britten’s music — while hardly easy listening — is harmonically appealing and darkly lyrical. The subject matter, taken from Roman legend of 510 B.C., is interpreted from a 20th century Christian perspective.
Like any classic tragedy, the title tells you exactly what you’re in for. But the slow, introspective analysis of the rape is a more recent look at humanity’s treatment of women. If there’s one questionable direction that might agitate some viewers, it’s Lucretia’s ecstatically blissful death, all smiles, as though she caught the express train to heaven. Where there is no doubt, there is no pity.
On Sunday, Opera Memphis closes out the festival with two less intense pieces, “Bon Appétit,” based on an episode of Julia Child’s cooking show; and “This is the Rill Speaking,” taken from an early Lanford Wilson play. Both by composer Lee Hoiby, they step even further into the present, which is where Opera Memphis hopes to bring audiences as well. So far, so good.
Opera Memphis’ Midtown Opera Festival
The festival continues Saturday and Sunday at Playhouse on the Square, 66 South Cooper. Tickets are $39-$59. Preshow buffet and Sunday brunch are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Other events are pay-what-you-can at the door. See complete festival schedule at operamemphis.org. Call 901-257-3100.