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Review: Pittsburgh Opera production of 'Rape of Lucretia' powerful, evocative

| Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010

The power of tragedy is nobly served in Benjamin Britten's chamber opera "The Rape of Lucretia," which Pittsburgh Opera is presenting through Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday evening's performance at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school, Downtown, was a powerful experience in which insightful interpretation left the tragedy and the questions it poses lingering in the mind for days.

Britten and his librettist set the ancient story using French playwright Andre Obey's version of the story. The opera's first act sets the context of powerful men and a singularly honorable woman. The ruler of Rome -- circa 500 B.C., before the Roman republic and empire -- is Tarquinius. He and his generals, Junius and Collatinus, discuss the fact that their wives have been unfaithful with the exception of Collatinus' wife, Lucretia.

The second act is heart-rending as Lucretia pleads with Tarquinius not to rape her. He does so anyway. Her despair, despite forgiveness by her husband, ends in suicide. The opera directly asks the question, "Is This All?" and provides a Christian sense of purpose, anachronistic though that is for 500 B.C.

Noah Baetge created a strong start for the performance, singing as the male chorus. Baetge and Danielle Patin, as the female chorus, both sang very well and were decisive in projecting the meaning of the text. The vile road to power by Tarquinius show him to be a villain even before he rapes his friend's wife.

Baritone Dan Kempson as Tarquinius sang beautifully throughout the performance, especially in Act II when he admires Lucretia before approaching her. But given what the audience knows about him, thanks to the male and female chorus, his portrayal was lightweight. Kempson's Tarquinius felt like a decent guy who lacks both the will to seize power and an evil core.

Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann gave a brilliant portrayal of Lucretia, magnificently sung and acted with remarkable projection of inner strength and dignity. That she sings with such focus and security from top to bottom at age 25, when her voice is still developing, augurs a major career for this artist.

Shannon Kessler Dooley made the most of Britten's ornamental writing as Lucia, while Katherine Drago was effective as Bianco, both characters who serve Lucretia.

The staging by Dan Rigazzi shows why the 2007 Carnegie Mellon University graduate is already working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It is a mature interpretation, making smart decisions at every turn and evoking an old-and-classic style of stage declamation.

Glenn Lewis led a decisive and strongly supportive performance from the tiny pit. The ensemble consisted of members of Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and other local professionals. They played Britten's exposed and demanding parts very well, although there were a few slips Tuesday night.

The opera's most haunting moments are those leading to Lucretia's suicide. She's been forgiven by her husband, but Lucretia is a deeply honorable person. Her honor comes from within her own spirit and that's been shattered. Nothing external, even her husband, can heal the shame and pain she feels. Ammann's portrayal conveys this, which is why her performance is a big-league achievement that's not to be missed.

Additional Information:

'The Rape of Lucretia'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Opera

When: 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $45

Where: Creative and Performing Arts High School, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or Web site

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