John Frayne | Solid reviews for 'Rape of Lucretia,' Kronos Quartet

John Frayne | Solid reviews for 'Rape of Lucretia,' Kronos Quartet

On Feb. 24, I attended the final performance of the recent run of Benjamin Britten's chamber opera "The Rape of Lucretia" in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

This work dates from 1946 and followed the grand opera "Peter Grimes," a work that made Britten world famous.

In the rape of a Roman matron Lucretia in 508 B.C., Britten chose a famous incident from early Roman history that is treated in Livy's "History of Rome" (Book I) and has been portrayed in poetry by the likes of William Shakespeare.

This personal tragedy was an important event in Roman history, in turning Rome from a monarchy to a republic. Britten chose to give a Christian interpretation to the tragedy, seeking to find a religious consolation out of Lucretia's death.

The Lyric Theatre production was largely successful in conveying the intense feelings of tragic loss aroused by Britten's powerful music.

The opening scene, in which three men, Tarquinius, sung by Scott Cuva, Junius, sung by Owen Connor Stout, and Collatinus, the husband of Lucretia, sung by Sergio Andres Martinez Salazar, discuss the virtue of their wives, and these three singers gave strong impetus to the impending grim event.

The following scene, of Lucretia, sung by Tereza Lituma, and her servants Lucia, sung by Molly Abrams, and Bianca, sung by Olivia Gronenthal, offered delicate relief in the interweaving of lighter, higher voices.

The major action of the opera, the assault, both emotional and violent, of Tarquinius upon the virtuous Lucretia generated sweeping emotive power in the dedicated singing of Lituma and Cuva. The end of this work gave ample opportunity for Lituma, in a scene in which Lucretia prepares for suicide, and her husband, Collatinus, sung by Salazar, to express feelings evoking pity for the tragic loss.

As commentators of the action and arousers of dramatic interest, composer Britten created roles for a female chorus and a male chorus. In this production, the male chorus, sung by Ryan Bruce Johnson, becomes an anthropologist of the 1920s, and the female chorus, sung by Paige Luttrell, becomes his archivist.

In contrast to the ancient world look of the central action of the drama, the modernized choruses sit on opposite sides of the stage, in 1920s surroundings. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern I found jarring, mainly because the language given to the choruses is in the high poetic style of the ancient characters, not the flat speech of the 1920s. That said, Luttrell and Johnson made a strong contribution to the impact of this opera.

My comments above apply to the Friday, Sunday cast. Different singers performed in the Thursday, Saturday casts.

The stage direction of Kirsten Pullen, who is director of the Theatre Department at UIUC, adroitly helped to heighten the dramatic impact of this work, and the music direction by Julie Jordan Gunn, conducting, from the piano, an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists, gave admirable and firm support to the student singers. The Lyric Theatre is to be commended in staging this less-often-produced work, which is achieving urgent relevance in the era of "#MeToo."

The Kronos Quartet appeared on Feb. 27, in the Tryon Festival Theatre, and they were the recipients of an adulatory video documentary, entitled "A Thousand Thoughts," created by filmmakers Sam Green and Joe Bini. The unusual aspect of this "Live Documentary" was that the members of the Kronos Quartet, David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang, cello, were there on the Tryon stage, playing passages from 20 pieces, a sampling of the very many works commissioned by the quartet, as above them unrolled the onscreen visual tapestry of their history.

Another departure from the typical documentary survey of a quartet's career was philosophical reflections on the mechanics of recording from inventor Thomas Edison on down to compact discs.

I found these ruminations less appealing, but as the evening wore on, the Kronos members and their playing became the central story, and that was an marked improvement. Members of the quartet, especially the sincere, soft-spoken Harrington, were heard from video clips, and the composers, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, also in video excerpts, emerged as iconic forces behind the quartet's fame and success.

The story of how the Kronos group, marketed as a rock band, decided to play almost exclusively contemporary music, made for an exciting and compelling story. But the scorn for traditional string quartets (the "Four Guys in Business Suits" slur), voiced by the filmmakers, hardly seems fair. I have heard many string quartets in the past decades, and most of them combine both dedicated playing of the classic quartets of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven as well as more challenging contemporary works, whatever their onstage dress.

It was notable that the two pieces that aroused the strongest audience response were the unusual singing of Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and the jolly playing of Chinese pipa player Wu Man.

The final piece played by the Kronos Quartet was Ervin T. Rouse's 1938 oldie "Orange Blossom Special," about an old-time train from New York to Miami, and this wild fiddling piece brought down the house in tumultuous applause. Clearly, Kronos fans were out in force and went home happy.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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