Houston Grand Opera's new production of Benjamin Britten's intimate but intensely gripping chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia takes place through February 11, 2012 and features the young American theatre director Arin Arbus in her operatic debut. Arbus is the associate artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, a classical off-Broadway company. She has made headlines in past seasons with her compelling direction of three Shakespeare productions, including her 2009 Othello, which received six Lortel nominations. In early 2010 she was featured in the New York Times, which spotlighted her work leading a theatre company of inmates at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in upstate New York; according to Arbus, it was her work there that re-ignited her passion for directing and storytelling. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, last heard at HGO as Venus in Tannhäuser, sings the title role in HGO's new Lucretia, which is led by Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald in his company debut.
In her notes for the production, Arbus observes: "Lucretia was first performed in 1946 - after WWII, after the Blitz, after over 300,000 Britons had died. As his homeland was reeling from this devastation, Britten was working on Lucretia – which attempts to harness song to human tragedy. Undoubtedly, as he wrote this opera about personal sacrifice and grief which gives way to political development, Britten was thinking of England's own attempts to grapple with those very issues." She continues, "On one level, the opera is deeply political. Lucretia's rape and subsequent death are widely known as the events that provoked the Romans to revolt against the occupying Etruscan forces, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Roman Republic. The story is both mythic and intimate. I hope to preserve these inherent ambiguities. We will set the action in Rome in the historical period, but we won't be literal or historical in the design."
HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers describes the Britten work: "It is an incredibly searing piece; hard to watch, cathartic, and very beautiful. The opera is about unmotivated acts of violence and the power play of men over women. It was written in the 1940s, when the world had witnessed the most extraordinarily violent event in history (WWII), so it is very much a product of those years." He adds, "Arin Arbus is emerging from a new, very young generation of American directors who work with real rigor and seriousness on Broadway. She has had extraordinary success directing Shakespeare, exploring the relationships between people, finding the ambiguity of the characters who behave in a certain way."
Britten's haunting score is paired with an ancient Roman tale that inspired Shakespeare. The men of the Roman army have discovered that their wives have been unfaithful during their absence – all but one: the innocent Lucretia. She has remained true to her husband, Collantinus, but falls prey to an arrogant young man, her husband's friend Tarquinius. He plots to test her fidelity and not only violates her chastity but brings about her complete ruin.
The story unfolds under the gaze of male and female chorus characters who provide commentary throughout. The opera, scored for a chamber orchestra of twelve instruments and piano, contains some of Britten's most lyrical and beautiful music.
The Rape of Lucretia was first performed in the United States on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The production, staged by Agnes De Mille, opened on December 29, 1948 and closed on January 15, 1949 after 23 performances.
American bass-baritone and HGO alumnus Ryan McKinny will perform the role of Lucretia's husband, Collatinus. Opera News wrote, "His lyrical bass-baritone voice drips with gold in the middle and upper registers." South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, making his HGO debut as the reckless and envious Tarquinius, was recently hailed by London's Financial Times as "the finest Billy I have heard – lusty, virile, sensitive and moving." Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and soprano Leah Crocetto perform as the Male and Female Choruses. Griffey was last heard at HGO in the title role of Britten's Peter Grimes, which was widely acclaimed. Crocetto is a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions and recently represented the United States at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.