Roman Charges

Deconstructing ancient Rome. That was the unspoken theme of Glimmerglass’s final festival offerings of the summer, both co-productions with the New York City Opera and both shortly due to travel south: Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Handel’s Agrippina. Although more than 235 years separate these works – Britten’s opera dates from 1946, Handel’s from 1710 – the Glimmerglass productions originate very much in the here and now, with freewheeling directorial concepts that would surely puzzle and possibly infuriate two composers who had very clear ideas of how they wanted their operas presented.

Britten was particularly precise, not only about what he wrote down but about how he expected to see his work realized onstage. The Rape of Lucretia has a very site-specific story to tell, and the drama is placed within a structure so carefully designed and tightly made that one might have thought the opera to be director-proof. The true tale of the virtuous Lucretia, her brutal rape by Tarquinius and subsequent suicide, is framed by a Male and Female Chorus, who, while they never participate in the action, observe and comment on it and are frequently moved by what they see. Their function is similar to that of the Evangelist in a Bach Passion, a relationship made even stronger here by musical associations (the stately chorale melody they sing over the chamber orchestra’s frenzied interlude during the rape scene, for example) and the Christian moral context in which they place the tragedy. The tension created by a violent story told with such organized, controlled, classical detachment is, as conductor Stewart Robertson points out in his program note, the basic source of the piece’s unsettling dramatic power.

Director Christopher Alden pretty much throws all this out and replaces it with his own scenario. In this production, the Male and Female Chorus (William Burden and Christine Goerke) don’t merely tell the story – they are the story. When the curtain rises, we see them seated on a sofa, he drinking heavily and she knitting, a fifties middle-class couple with a communication problem and for some inexplicable reason deeply concerned with the Etruscan domination of Rome. Eventually we get to see the Roman characters themselves, the women in print housedresses and the soldiers in World War II uniforms, except for Tarquinius (Nathan Gunn), who is portrayed as a half-naked punk. They all move stiffly, strike poses, and, while the narrators continue their tale of rape and woe, become increasingly agitated.

By Act II, in fact, the Male Chorus is so rattled that he starts tearing off his own clothes. He clearly sees something of himself in Tarquinius as he watches that obnoxious bully take out his misogynistic aggressions on Lucretia (Michelle DeYoung), a dowdy housewife just like Mrs. Chorus. A rather chaste rape takes place on the sofa, and on the morning after, a catatonic Lucretia appears dressed in a tacky suit, hat, and purse as if headed off to the market. She soon changes her mind and stabs herself. Got it yet? The Rape of Lucretia is not about defiled innocence, Christian redemption, or any of the moral issues that so concerned Britten, but a gritty parable of postwar England, an alienated society rife with domestic dysfunction and primed for the angry young men who populate the plays of John Osborne. In this context, the Christian homilies that the two narrators read over Lucretia’s body don’t make much sense, but never mind. Mrs. Chorus coldly turns her back on Mr. Chorus and leaves the room; another marriage has failed.

It hardly takes a brilliant operatic dramaturge to see through this brainless travesty, loaded with irrelevant inventions and non sequiturs. Say what you will about Peter Sellars’s updatings and relocations of standard operas; that director’s ideas originate within the works themselves, and they invariably illuminate what’s actually in the text and music. Alden, on the other hand, hurls himself between the opera and the audience as he rewrites, misrepresents, and imposes his own fantasies on a carefully composed, deeply moving music drama. The City Opera should do us a favor and scrap this willful distortion before it reaches New York City.

The production of Handel’s Agrippina also toys freely with time and space, but with far less damaging results. Although the historical characters that make up the cast are a pretty unsavory crew, all thoughts of murder, mayhem, and matricide were still in the future when Agrippina plotted to make her son, Nero, Rome’s emperor. The libretto treats the entire intrigue with a light touch; the scene in which Poppea admits and then hides two of her three admirers – Nero and Otho – even has the antic off-color flavor of a Feydeau sex farce, and Handel treats it as such. He was only 24 and learning the opera trade in Italy when he wrote this work, his first major success, and his music not only mirrors the text’s witty asides, double entendres, and puns, but also has more fluidity and formal variety than the later London operas.

To a certain extent, Agrippina’s frivolous spirit and loose structure justify this production’s rather disheveled appearance. Even at that, director Lillian Groag’s attempts at humor – ancient Romans mixing martinis, applying sunblock, packing pistols – raise weak smiles at best, while Jess Goldstein’s cross-period pop-culture costumes also stress the obvious by dressing Agrippina as a Joan Collins look-alike or turning a pair of comic servants into Abbott and Costello.

As for John Conklin’s sets, we’ve seen those dangling geometric figures, cutout statues, and movable columns many times before. No, this is not one of Glimmerglass’s more distinguished moments, but a few more rehearsals and a stronger cast should make a big difference when the show arrives at the State Theater. At Cooperstown, only countertenor David Walker as Otho sounded on top of the music and in command of Baroque vocal techniques. Alexandra Coku (Agrippina), Beth Clayton (Nero), Karen Wierzba (Poppea), and Derrick Parker (Claudius) are passable Handelians at best, although everyone benefited from Harry Bicket’s stylish musical direction.

The Rape of Lucretia
The opera by Benjamin Britten, staged by Christopher Alden.
The opera by Handel, staged by Lillian Groad.
Both at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Roman Charges