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Review: Conlon conducts an inspired 'Rape of Lucretia' at Colburn

James Conlon
Los Angeles Times

By Richard S. Ginell

The Britten year in Los Angeles has begun with a bang. This weekend, you can hear Britten in Walt Disney Concert Hall, at Jacaranda in Santa Monica -- and most of all, in the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall where the ever-on-the-move sparkplug James Conlon is presiding over an extraordinary marathon of songs and opera that rarely get a live hearing in this country.

For starters Thursday night, in a setting that imaginatively re-invents the format of an art song recital, there was a long “prelude” of often stark songs by Benjamin Britten and others by his teachers Frank Bridge and John Ireland and his foremost predecessor in English opera, Henry Purcell. Three excellent young singers -- Amanda Woodbury, Rebecca Nathanson and Joshua Guerrero, clad like white statues -- took turns in sequence while the lighting dramatically changed from song to song, giving each one its own character.

The centerpiece was Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia,” his first chamber opera, but by no means a miniature in terms of the power and passion that full-tilt opera can generate.  The setting is ancient Rome, and Britten tried to distance the audience further by having a Male Chorus and a Female Chorus in the form of single singers narrate and comment upon the action.

Yet in an inspired performance like the one Conlon was able to get from an outstanding collection of singers (mostly from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program) and a 13-piece onstage instrumental group, there was no distancing.

You were drawn in tightly by the intensity of the piece, left dazed at the close. I can imagine this performance making an impression even in the too-large Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but in the comparatively cozy Zipper, with its warm, clear acoustics illuminating every spare, exquisite instrumental detail (especially the bass) and the audience so close to the performers, it was overwhelming.

Just as amazing was the comprehensive way in which the cast and players had absorbed the authentic Britten style right down to the diction, adding more than a dash of American zest to this performance, part of Los Angeles Opera's "Britten 100/LA: A Celebration."

When tenor Benjamin Bliss (Male Chorus) began his first narrative, he seemed to be directly channeling Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and muse whose example continues to set the style to this day. Gulu Monteiro’s stage direction, while following the libretto almost to a fault, still managed to magnify the elements of erotic desire and the subsequent terror of rape. Anne Militello’s lighting produced stunning effects, especially the electric blues and greens on Swinda Reichelt’s costumes.

One has to wonder, would the reticent, meticulously understating Britten have been taken aback by the emotions that this production unleashed or would he have been quietly pleased that his innermost intuitions had been realized? No matter; go see this if you can.