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Published: Friday, 3/12/2010

Stark 'Lucretia' dazzles in Toledo Opera debut

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

The Rape of Lucretia, the darkly intense musical drama by Benjamin Britten debuted Thursday night by the Toledo Opera, is not grand opera.

Grand opera has divas doing arias and tenors rapping patter songs in elaborate and colorful settings, lavishly costumed and accompanied by full orchestra and large chorus.

No, this first local production of the Britten work, presented in stark black and white on a spare Valentine Theatre stage, is great opera.

Watching the production engendered a sense of situational dislocation: Were we actually in Chicago? New York City? Los Angeles? Sophisticated, thought-provoking works like this with its exquisite musical score rarely are offered in T-Town.

Maybe it's one rare example of an upside to this dismal economy.

Forced to trim production costs drastically, general and artistic director Renay Conlin refused to cut quality.

In the 1946 Britten work she found a way to have it all, for a lot less money.

Total head count in the female and male choruses: two. Cast, counting chorus members: eight.

Costumes: unadorned plain fabric in tunic designs and sandals. Set: a two-tier platform dead center on the stage, backed by a very large screen used for all sorts of special visual effects.

Even the orchestra is reduced, a mere 13 players led by Thomas Conlin.

But they deliver the musical goods big time, thanks in large part to Britten's inspired scoring but also to careful performances.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore and tenor Steven Sanders are wonderfully matched in the chorus roles, doing the heavy musical and dramatic lifting from first note to last.

Their focus steadies the entire production and weaves all the events into a coherent whole.

As Roman generals Collatinus and Junius, bass-baritone Matthew Burns and baritone Lee Gregory bring rich musicality and authentic emotion to their roles.

As the bad boy Etruscan prince, Tarquinius, Philip Cutlip is menacing and macho.

In her first appearance in Toledo, Elizabeth Batton works her rich and powerful mezzo voice to the utmost while bringing convincing confusion and fear to the title character.

Maids played by mezzo Maria Zifchak (Bianca) and soprano Kiera Duffy (Lucia) are solid foils for Lucretia's confusion and passion.

Ronald Duncan's potent libretto is bursting with quotable lines such as the male chorus observation from the first act: "It is an axiom among kings to use a foreign threat to hide a local sin."

The only local "sin" possible with this TOA production would be that of omission: failing to see the opera for yourself.

The Toledo Opera production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets begin at $30.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com.



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