misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Castleton Festival: Modern Heroines' Operas: Turn of the Screw, Rape of Lucretia

Dear Friends,

Last Saturday for the fourth of July and now this Saturday, Jim, Isabel and I drove about an hour and one half into the middle of Virginia to visit the beautiful 600 acre estate of Lorin Maazel (now retired director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) where he has had built a small concert theatre, just about suitable for chamber operas; a grandstand inside a tent for larger concert performances; buildings enough to house a summer school for musicians, singers, orchestra, and other people involved in music and the arts (like pianists, coaches, set designers, directors); and of course a large home for himself, his wife (a German actress, many years younger than he), and children (now apparently near grown up).

The manor house seen from below where there is a lake

We thought of ourselves as just going to three operas, all by Benjamin Britten, but found that beyond that we were having an experience of a exquisitely landscaped so almost every inch near the houses is picturesque in some varied way, and the places beyond all green and refreshing to the eye.  And of other people like ourselves who arrived by car and wereferried about by a buses (last week only one to which another as added and this week two) and talked to us and one another. The place is huge and the only way to get around is by bus or bicycle.

Last Saturday he held an open house and literally hundreds of people came to see (and gawk at, probably) his manor house (there were tours), and listen to live concerts in the afternoon in two different places (under large awnings in shell structures) and eat picnic lunches with choice of wine, soda, or coffee (that was charged for).  There are animal too:  a zebra, a donkey and a zonkey (child of said zebra and donkey).  He was said to have bought them so his children could have animals about.  You could see stacks of hay and the fields criss-crossed like in England.

Most of the people were not there for the opera, and just came and went.  They were occupying themselves for July 4th.  This week there was a tiny group in comparison, but sufficient to nearly fill the opera house, and this evening there was a concert.  Next week there will be another opera. This is the first time there has been a full season of operas in summer. Whether there will be another remains to be seen. This cost a huge amount (tickets couldn't begin to cover it), and Maazel is an old man. He has patrons and organizations helping him to pay for it, but it takes a long time to build an institution.

I wanted to write about the operas under the sign of Austen as both are heroines texts (so to speak), contemporary ones.  The July 4th one was (or is, if the production is taken elsewhere) an adaptation of a Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, Henry is a son of Jane. The libretto is by a woman, Myfanwy Piper, and unlike James, very sympathetic to the governess

A cover for James's story

Today's was The Rape of Lucretia, libretto, Ronald Duncan and there was no open house, so far fewer people, only those coming to the opera (who had paid for it).  The opera basically frames this traditional story and interprets it as parable coming out of World War Two: the production and presentation of the central rape put me in mind of the 1960 great Italian movie, Two Women (adapted from a powerful novella by Elsa Morante, about two women raped by a bunch of American soldiers in a church just as the war is ending),

Poster for Two Women

The men in the production and Lucretia's nurse and maid were dressed n WW2 costumes, with paraphernalia suggestive of Roman times; Lucretia was in spotless white, a dress which was half evening dress, half nightgown.

The production of The Turn of the Screw was superb; The Rape of Lucretia, magnificent, and the opera itself one of the great operas of the repertoire which appears to be infrequently done, perhaps because it's a chamber opera, but more likely the content (and title) frightens audiences off and worries producers who want large audiences coming in. 

I think both operas of real interest to anyone interested in women's art, literature, and issues.  They are both sympathetic to central women types who in the original takes the author is either highly ambivalent (James) or where the character is scapegoated and women distrusted deeply (Lucretia -- for what is a rape story where a woman kills herself for a vicious murderous crime committed against her).

They left me hopeful -- paradoxically  -- about how women are regarded, but then perhaps it was just Britten who was a gay man, and gay man sometimes identify with women.

There follows a review of each.


First James's ghost story:  What's astonishing is really how many interpretations you can derive from it, even if you acknowledge that the ghosts are really there. You can even deny that, but usually in such stories the ghost are really there. It's not until post-MR James (and that's not MR James but post him) that you get psychological projections as the final explanation for sure, or cruel tricks by other people.

It's a Christmas tale. A group of peope are sitting about scaring one another, and one man says what about a story where not only one but two children have "visitations."  Then the first turn: he's not going to tell it, oh no, it's manuscript.  This reminded me of  Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose, which begins (tongue-in-cheek), "naturally, a manuscript."  As you begin to read the frame falls away (you forget it), but then again towards the end you realize that this governess telling the story may not be alive right now as this is a manuscript.  In brief, a governess (never named) is hired to go to a house deep in the country to care for the two wards of a man (rich, never named, lives in Harley Street so perhaps a physicia) who does not want to be bothered about anything that happens there at all.  When she arrives, she meets a housekeeper; as she is a vicar's daugher, thrown on hard times we are in classic Jane Eyre tale, only there are two children, a boy, Miles, about 13; he has just been permanently expelled from his school and a girl, Flora, slightly younger than he. She gradually learns the governess who was there before, Miss Jessel, just left one day, shattered, and then died.

Miss Jessel in the opera

There was also a man on the property whose role is not clear, Peter Quint; he too is now dead.  The govrerness begins to see Quint and Miss Jessel as ghosts; they are (it seems to her) trying to take the children with them to the world of the dead, and it seems to the governess, that something sexual happened between Quint and the boy and Quint wants Miles for more sex. Perhaps Miles was complicit and his appetites aroused made him chase other boys; but perhaps he was innocent.  Maybe Quint had sex with Miss Jessel; perhaps Miss Jessel wants Flora for sex, perhaps Quint wants her.  Perhaps this is all in the governess's mind, but I think not. The children act very oddly and if the governess is repressed, it really makes life harder for her, for she cannot express aloud what she thinks. She appears to be infatuated with her cold boss; she is alone. It's not clear if the housekeeper believes there are dangerous ghost or believes the governess is the danger to them all.

To make a medium size story short, after several terrifying adventures and appearances, and the children found on the estate at night, out of their beds, and everyone becoming more and more traumatized, the manuscript stops dead as if cut off because the boy's heart stops beating and that's it.  So we don't know what happened to the governess, ghosts, housekeeper, Flora. Perhaps finally their guardian (whose name we are not told) finally took an interest: one which would probabl not be in the governess's favor (whose name we are not told).

It's probably not a healthy tale for everywhere everything swirls about unspoken suspicions of sexual action: be it the boy since he was expelled from a school who never want him back (all boys's school we are told), or between the boy and Quint (who "wants" him we are told) or the boy and Miss Jessel, or Miss Jessel and Flora or Miss Jessel and Quint. 

Quint and Miles

Is it all made up by a hysterical governess?  Well she's hysterical only after a while and partly that's because she hasn't got the nerve to tell and was told by her employer not to bother him, no matter what. James makes that boy's voice halfadult.  Is he complicit? 

The atmosphere is everything and in reading the story I do find myself unnerved as I read. As with M.R James I get to teh point where I loo round fearful I'll see something.  James is saying (another level of teh ficiton), you think you've read ghost stories, well I'll show you what I can do. At the opening there's an allusion to Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho too where a terrible secret is said to be at the heart of the tale and when we get there we find nothing very much.  On one level, the story is a sort of joke.  James is outdoing all ghost stories ever.

I've not begun to do justice to the pyschological feel of the story. James was gay and is talking about himself of course in part; he probably detested the narrow minded bigot but he does sympathize with this governess. She is the archetypal heroine of 19th century tales, naturally all alone, and she is working ever so hard to educate these children, with them night and day. Miss Jessel went away shattered; this reminds me of the man (father) in Wings of the Dove who lives furtively in an apartment scared to go into the streets. As Alan Bennet has shown in his stories, there is no safety for homosexual man, and one photo fo James shows him looking nervous and rumpled. On the other hand, she is insinuatingly presented by the governess as super-sexy.  We are not told much about Quint.

Well the opera was powerful.  It did opt for the governess seeing real ghosts. It almost had to.  You have people playing the ghosts. Of course they could be presented as visions, but we see them on stage arguing about what to do next and they are clearly there.  The governess (Charlotte Dobbs sang beautifully, full round tones) clearly loves the children and is not out to hurt them herself. The housekeeper believes the governess.  The boy seems innocent but it also seems that Quint is after him since he's had him before.  Otherwise why does he have an heart  attack.

It was staged against a black wall and mostly black curtains. Everything dark. Quint was a very high tenor (Jim thought Steven Ebel was peculiarly great as a singer and actor in it -- this was the Peter Pears part).  The governess and housekeeper (Rachel Calloway) were sopranas and Miss Jessel a very high soprana (Greta Ball).  The content was daring.  It was clear we were watching an opera about pederasty (that's the avoided word for what went on between Quint and Miles).  Jim says it's common in Britten operas to find very high tenor voices and a boy or boys' voice(s). This is something you find in other of Britten's operas, a feature rarely frankly or openly discussed.  It's in Peter Grimes (who also abuses a boy who dies of it).  Piper built on the part of James sympathetic to the governess, left alone, innocent in a way in her falling in love with her employer, one of the motives for her taking the job. Clearly we are to think poorly of the employer for not wanting to know anything that goes on in the house or about the children.  There is her isolation and and relationship with the housekeeper (who is as fearful of talking candidly as she) as her only confident..

The governess and Miles

Lorin Mazell was the conductor, and the orchestra a group of graduate students from London, the Royal London college of musicians (or something like that).


I was just stunned by The Rape of Lucretia.  I actually hadn't wanted to go.  I feared the opera's story would be presented in a manner that distressed or angered me.  Previously all versions of Lucretia as a story I had read were probably from the Renaissance and they present her after the rape is over, remembering and then killing herself at great length. They seem to me ugly, filled with a distrust for women's sexuality, using this figure as a scapegoat. Why should she kill herself?  As an exemplum it's pernicious. I dislike the luxurious garments she is usually dressed in; there is something lascivious in the tone of the authors and painters who present her.  The story was not usually done in the 17th through 20th centuries (none in Racine, Corneille) nor the Romantics who went in for rape and incest too (say Beatrice Cenci).

But this one framed the story by two people in modern dress, presented as Christian believers (a man, sung by Tyler S. Nelson and this was Peter Pears's role, very high tenor) and woman (Arainan ZUkerman) dressed in contemporary suit and tie for the man and blouse and skirt for the woman) who are horrified by the story they watch.  Tarquinius, Junius, and Collatinus are out drinking in the fields, and talk and it seems only Collatinus has a faithful wife.  It may be misogynistic to present all women but one as sexually unfaithful, but 1) it feels like men boasting and tormenting one another (not necessarily true stories) and also if they did so, what then?  Why should they stay true to these savage men? 

Tarquinius is the son of a usuerper, a vicious, cruel man and he decides to head back to Lucretia's house to rape her to get back at Collatinus and Junius for their mockery of him.  And that's just what he does.  Lucretia at first does not want to let him stay but sees no way out of being hospitable.

Then he wakes in the night and comes to where she is sleeping under the gauze. At first she is dreaming of Collatinus but when she realizes who it is she tries to fight him off. Throughout he and then afterward she carries a sort of group of switches or whips and chains which don't seem to have much overt function but as a symbol. 

Her women wake the next morning; it's beautiful and they sing,

Nurse and maid gathering flowers.

But then their mistress comes out and they see something terrible has happened.  Collatinus is called home suddenly and sees his wife so shattered and horrified: the way she talks about her shame suggests maybe that she did feel that some sexual passion could have been or was roused in her and this appalls her; also the way it's staged seems to deliberately suggest he raped her anally at first.  Collatinus tries to comfort her and tell her there is no shame as it was forced on her but before he can reason with her, she kills herself.  Junious then vows to overturn Tarquinius and his parents and free Rome to make her a republic (this is part of the original myth).

There were specific allusions too:  The props included a naked light bulb hanging over Lucretia as Tarquinius rapes her precisely like that in the 1951 Streetcar named Desire (above Blanche and Stanley), and there was a gauze curtain separating them just like in the movie.  Also Othello:  again the gauze curtain was wrapped around Lucretia's bed just as in Othello it usually is, and as I saw it last week when I watched a movie, A Double Life where Ronald Colman plays Othello and in the movie really attempts to murder his wife playing Desmona. Not to omit Richardson's Clarissa who is raped and similar to Lucretia in this version refuses to dismiss this from her mind. 

Admittedly there is stereotyping.  The women are presented as endlessly sewing and waiting for Collatinus to come home.  Lucretius is a Penelope.  The woman who sang Lucretia, Tamara Mumford, a superb mezzo-soprano (off to sing Dido at Glimmerglass on Sunday), was dressed sexily, and the hint she felt sexual passion during the rape (or for however long it went on) misrepresented what rape is. The opera is more than a half-century old. But written just after WW2, it means to show us the savagery of man and war.  It's an anti-war opera and relevant to us today where nowadays openly it's admitted soldiers rape and kill women and slaughter children out of bloodlust and revenge. The two Christians were there to register moral horror, and especially the woman (a soprano). Her expressions were to enact the feelings of the audience, perhaps especially the women.

I liked the music and voices in the Rape of Lucretia better than The Turn of the Screw.  Tarquinius was a low tenor; Collatinus ws sung by Allen Boxer, a bass-baritone.  Tarquinus was sung by Matthew Worth who acted the part fiercely. I much prefer a mix of voices and like lower ones.  The acting was superb, and the music so well done.  A lot was spoken and the surtitles essential in carrying the meaning.  Really both operas were splendidly done and unexpectedly I was moved by both and I hope I've shown they are modern heroine's tales.


A final highlight of last week:  I heard Michael Fennelly played the piano four times at two different locations. He seemed to be in charge of the live concerts going on,a kind of master of ceremonies for these.

Michael Fennelly with one of his teachers

He is just spectacular. It was rare pleasure and enormous treat to listen to this man play George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and then Wagner's Tannhauser prologue as set the piano by Lizst. Indeed I could scarcely believe how that man's fingers did the latter. I think I really enjoyed his playing more than anything else I heard musically. While the opera was fascinating and well done, I can't say I enjoyed the music the way I did Fennelly's choice of music as well as playing.  He did two other numbers too, another Gershwin and Mozart. He is there as the Rehearsal Pianist/Coach for Maazell has set up a school for musicians, performers, design people and composers for the summer season while the festival goes on.

This does look like the grand piano he played in a beautiful room we found ourselves in at one point. It had Venetian windows and looked out over an alluring landscaped scene.  There was a second piano (standup) in one of the shells.  

Maazell made just oodles of money as Philharmonic Conductor and Director (a big salary and then payment for each time he conducted) and is now sharing it beautifully.  Taxes for the rich are low in the US, and so he accumulated a helluva a lot.  Even the outdoor bathrooms (Johns) in the place were exquisitely well done in good taste.  Tiled floors, fancy seat, mirrors, cabinets. 

Money well tim'd, and properly apply'd, will do anything.
 -------John Gay, The Beggar's Opera

Next week we see Britten's Beggar's Opera.  Now I enjoy Gay's play and have seen it a couple of times on stage (once with Raoul Julio) and used to screen Jonathan Miller's TV The Beggar's Opera. for my students.   I've seen Brecht's and used to listen to a record of it.  I look forward to a third contemporary version.

A recent Mrs Peachum in Gay's musical play (2007).

I once played the role of the much put-upon brothel madame (she has a hard time making ends meet she says) in the second half of the play in a fun production we did at an Eastern Region meeting.

Tags: 19th century

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