Rush to the intimate Agnes de Mille Theatre to see Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, the current season’s last full opera production of the Fletcher Opera Institute and the NC School of the Arts. Its almost stylized, ritual action has been effectively staged by Will Graham. With only one faculty member in the cast, most of the vocal fireworks are delivered by firm-voiced Fletcher Opera Institute scholars and talented NCSA students. Scott Tilley leads a crack pit ensemble of fourteen musicians. This review is of opening night, May 5. The opera will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, May 9.

The libretto, by Ronald Duncan, is based on Le viol du Lucrèce, a play by André Obey, the plot of which was derived from Shakespeare, whose early narrative poem, The Rape of Lucretia , was taken from Livy’s History of Rome . Premiered July 12, 1946, at Glyndebourne, England, this was the first of Britten’s line of chamber operas, designed to encourage productions by being inexpensive to stage. This has made it an attractive subject for Conservatory productions. The cast calls for six principal singers plus a single male chorus and a female chorus, features retained from the Obey play. The latter are not static commentators but active participants, sometimes egging on a character, sometimes delivering a Christian creed that seems at odds with events or forced.

The action results from a drunken bet made among two Roman officers, Collatinus and Junius, and the Etruscan Prince Tarquinius, the dissolute son of the tyrant of Rome. Betting on which of their wives would be found faithful at home, only Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, remains true. Goaded by Junius’ dare and compounded by his own jealous rage, Tarquinius rides back to Rome where he seeks hospitality from Lucretia before stealing into her bedchamber and raping her. Overcome by shame, she commits suicide after summoning her husband home.

Tenor James Allbritten was superb as the Male Chorus. His fine and even voice has a timbre not too far removed from that of Peter Pears for whom the role was written. The role is wide-ranging and complex, and Allbritten, recently named Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Piedmont Opera Theatre and Chorus Master of the Winston-Salem Symphony, met all the challenges. He has been one of my favorite tenors since I reviewed his Des Grieux in Piedmont Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon .

Equally superb was soprano Emily Amber Newton as the Female Chorus. This part is unusually challenging in that the Female Chorus is silent through most of the first scene of Act I, having only a brief arioso, “It is an axiom among kings,” followed by a beautifully blended duet with the Male Chorus. Most of this scene gave her a chance to display a full gamut of “simple acting,” devised by director Graham – to use facial and body language as she reacted to events or to the Male Chorus. Scene 2 includes a marvelous quartet for all four women, and Newton’s arias helped establish an atmosphere of quiet domesticity. In Act II, her gentle lullaby over the sleeping Lucretia was a highlight of the evening. She is a Fletcher scholar and a prize-winning student of Marilyn Taylor. Newton will travel to Spoleto to cover the role of Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.*

Krassen Karagiozov, a baritone from Bulgaria, was almost too believable as the lust-driven Tarquinius. From his hair-trigger temper in the Roman camp to his barely contained passion when he sought hospitality from Lucretia, he was a threatening presence. I began to fear the stage director would not have the scrim cover the rape scene quickly enough. He is a Fletcher scholar and a student of Marilyn Taylor, and he will participate in this summer’s Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.

Mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce brought a firmly supported voice, clear diction, and subtle acting to the role of Lucretia. She projected, at the outset, dutiful domesticity, followed by portrayals of a frightened hostess and then a struggling rape victim who then dealt with the wrenching aftermath of the crime, leading to her suicide. She is a Fletcher scholar who has studied with Marilyn Taylor, among others.

Jonathan Merritt, a transfer student from Texas in his first year at the NCSA, brought an almost sepulchral bass to the role of Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus. His slim and sturdy stage presence reminded me of a young Samuel Ramey. He would be a natural Sparafucile, the assassin in Rigoletto , and he was ideally cast as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni earlier this season. He is a student of Marilyn Taylor.

Baritone Yona Wade sang Junius. He has a solid voice and fine diction, and he brought out much of the role’s ambiguity and complexity. He is very much a native of North Carolina, hailing from the Cherokee Indian Reservation. He is a NCSA senior studying with tenor Glenn Siebert.

The role of Bianca, Lucretia’s Old Nurse, was ably filed by mezzo-soprano Joanna Gates, a bachelor’s degree candidate student who studies with Marion Pratnicki. Jennifer DeLatte brought an almost instrumental high soprano to the role of Lucia, a giddy young maid to Lucretia. Both contributed some nice small bits of comic relief.

Among the many highlights of Britten’s orchestration, played to perfection under Tilley’s baton, were the evocation of Tarquinius’ wild horseback ride to Rome, the tone portrait of a summer’s night, with crickets and night animals, and the scene with percussion that accompanies Tarquinius’ creeping through the darkened house, seeking Lucretia’s bed chamber.

Anna Hewett’s stark and effective sets were given telling lighting by Rachel Gilmore. The Male and Female Chorus were dressed in white suits that distanced them from the Romans, who wore costumes suggestive of the period. Blair A. Gulledge was the costume designer.

Footnote: I liked this production so much that I also attended the last performance. Opening night’s darkened hall discouraged note taking, so I was able to correct minor errors of memory in the original review. The matinee performance was even stronger than opening night with everything contributing to a heightened sense of drama, culminating in the tragic suicide of Lucretia and the metaphysical questionings of those left behind.

Para. 5 edited & footnote added 5/12/04.