We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Ben Cohen, Devony Smith, Hanne Dollase, Eldric Bashful, Gary Slavin, William Remmers, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Elizabeth Bouk, Stan Lacy

Maestro William Remmers is game to tackle any opera for which his audience votes. That is one of the unique qualities of Utopia Opera. We have certainly thrown some curve balls at him but he always hits them.  With Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia, he hit it out of the park.

This is not an easy opera to love. The story is both brutal and tragic. The victim Lucretia, suffering from a combination of shame and guilt, pays the dramatic price by stabbing herself. We live in a world containing places where women are killed because of such loss of honor.  But Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan examines the story from the perspective of mid-20th c. Christianity.  In 21st c. New York City it carries an unsettling confrontational load, making us aware of that which we would avoid.

The work itself is largely declamatory with no beautiful arias to comfort us. The music is dissonant and perturbing, although powerful in its effect. However, there are moments of great beauty elicited by Mr. Remmers astute conducting of his 13-piece chamber orchestra. Tomina Parvanova's harp shimmers as Lucretia enters. There are some stunning harmonies in a duet of bass clarinet (Jeffrey Hodes) and horn (Brad Shaw).

Serving as narrators and guides for the audience are tenor Eldric Bashful, whose readings were as dramatic as his singing was lovely, and soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley, whose richly timbred instrument delighted us at the George London Competition.

As the eponymous Lucretia, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bouk made a noble but vulnerable heroine. We have been seeing a lot of this rising star lately--not only as a Utopia Opera regular, but also at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Her voice and acting are equally impressive.

As her two servants, the old nurse Bianca (mezzo-soprano Hanne Dollase) and the maid Lucia (soprano Devony Smith) made significant contributions to the evening's success. Their trio with Ms. Bouk in Act I and their "flower" duet in Act II provided some of the lovelier vocal sounds.

As the despised libertine Etruscan Prince Tarquinius, baritone Stan Lacy created a loathsome character who despises the whores he can have so easily and is stimulated by the thought of taking the only faithful wife in Rome. The rape scene was superbly staged by Director Gary Slavin, as was the rest of the opera.

The Prince kisses the sleeping Lucretia who is dreaming of her husband Collatinus and therefore responds. Is she complicit? In 21st c. America, men have to ask permission to take liberties. In 500 B.C. one supposes that men took all the liberties they wanted since women were property.

Bass Steven Fredericks sang the role of Collatinus, a Roman general of a peaceful and forgiving nature. His fellow general Junius (baritone Ben Cohen) has a slimy nature. He is envious of Collatinus' military glory and jealous of Collatinus' successful marriage.  Spurred on by the humiliation of being cuckolded by his own wife, he manipulates Tarquinius into a midnight gallop to Rome to ravish Lucretia. Although not equal to "The Ride of the Valkyries", Britten came up with some powerful music for this episode.

The libretto is interesting for its magnificent metaphors, i.e. "Thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light". However there were times when the metaphors made no sense and seemed excessive. Great contrast was made between the creativity of women and the destructiveness of men.

Last season we enjoyed a production of this opera at Juilliard. It was powerful then and it was again last night. Part opera, part play with music, and part oratorio, the work stands up to repeat performances.

We will have to wait until December to see and hear more from Mr. Remmers when he is tackling a genre with which he is very familiar--Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida. Watch for it!

(c) meche kroop

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