The Toledo Opera Association loves to mix things up artistically for the adventure of introducing something new to its fan base. The current season is a prime example.
Last fall, audiences howled at Verdi's final masterpiece and only comic opera, Falstaff, a dark-tinged romp of musical jokes, sight gags, and elaborate pranks. Last month they applauded enthusiastically for the romantic lyricism served up at the gala, "April in Paris."
So what did TOA general and artistic director Renay Conlin choose as a chaser?
Benjamin Britten's darkly brilliant The Rape of Lucretia, a chamber opera to be presented for the first time in Toledo at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the historic Valentine Theatre.
"People of Toledo should race to the box office," said stage director Paula Suozzi (Swah-zee) last week during a break from rehearsals. This is her first professional encounter with the Britten work and her Toledo debut.
The Rape of Lucretia could be a 21st-century account with all the jealousy, cupidity, betrayal, and sexual predation it enfolds. But in fact, it's an old, old tale — true, by all accounts — set to one of the most intense and stirring scores in the opera world.
Britten adapted the play of the same name by Andre Obey. Obey, a 17th-century French writer, based his plot on historic accounts by Ovid and Livy, chroniclers of the lives of the ancients.
The crux of The Rape of Lucretia is the single eponymous event which sparked the founding of the Roman republic.
Lucretia, the loyal and industrious wife of Roman soldier-politician Collatinus, becomes the target of the Roman king's jealous son, Sextus Tarquinius. Tarquinius, acting out a case of royal entitlement, violently rapes Lucretia at sword-point while her husband is away fighting a campaign for Tarquinius' father.
The fallout from this attack ultimately leads to the overthrow of the Roman king and the founding of the new Roman Republic.
At a recent Toledo Museum of Art gathering, Susan Palmer, a museum employee, talked about the story, which is vividly represented in the museum's neoclassical masterpiece The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques-Louis David. The painting — and its back-story — became a potent symbol of liberation in pre-revolutionary France.
So rarely is The Rape of Lucretia produced that, for almost the entire cast and crew, this production will be a first.
Powerhouse mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton will portray Lucretia, with Philip Cutlipp and Matthew Burns, respectively, as soldiers and antagonists Collatinus and Sextus Tarquinius.
Joining them onstage in supporting roles will be Kiera Duffy, Maria Zifchak, and Lee Gregory, with Margaret Lattimore and Steven Saunders representing the chorus.
"This crosses the boundary between theater and opera," says Suozzi, a Milwaukee artist who directs drama and musical theater as well as opera from coast to coast. "It's like watching a play that is sung."
Thomas Conlin will conduct only 13 musicians, the original size called for by Britten, a skeleton crew of strings, winds, and brass, plus piano, harp, and tympani.
"It's amazing what sound and color Britten was able to create with this small group," Conlin said last week. "Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is the greatest and most important British composer since Henry Purcell."
Britten wrote 16 operas, many scaled to chamber size like The Rape of Lucretia. (Toledo Opera presented Britten's chilling mystery, The Turn of the Screw, in its 2001-2002 season.)
The opera was the musical outpouring of Britten's anguish over the destruction of his country, seen with fresh eyes after he returned from self-imposed exile in the United States not long before Armistice Day.
"Benjamin Britten is a master at creating atmosphere through music. Something about the way the music is set inspires a visceral response," added Suozzi.
She prepared for the project by immersing herself in both the Britten score and libretto. Plus, she says, "I researched ancient Rome."
True to Britten's intentions, Suozzi is maintaining a simple set with a single platform on which the action will take place — a strong reference to ancient theater but with 20th century music.
"The opportunity to see opera in our own language is rare," notes Suozzi. (The last English-language opera the TOA produced was last spring's Candide).
Tickets for Rape of Lucretia start at $25 and are available at the door or in advance at toledoopera.org or 419-255-7464. In the hour before the curtain, Conlin will give an informal chat about the production.
Contact Sally Vallongo at email@example.com.