Tales from centuries and cultures far and wide gather fresh urgency in the #MeToo era. La Susanna, Measure for Measure, and Murasaki’s Moon (a new opera on the Tale of Genji) are just some of the manifestations I’ve seen on stage in recent months. The era-spanning musical ensemble Cantata Profana offers another with its multimedia Lucretia.
This concert-dance-drama explores via collage the story of a rape that, according to legend, triggered the fall of the monarchy in ancient Rome. Core members of Cantata Profana, joined by dancers and additional musicians, dimensionalize the story by looking at it from multiple angles.
Through dance and mute drama the show dramatizes Lucretia’s assault by the Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), with music from the past seven or eight hundred years: songs from the medieval Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana), northern European folk songs, contemporary experimental works, and classical and baroque music by the likes of Locatelli, Respighi, and Handel.
Many of the selections come from treatments of the Lucretia story itself. There’s a bit of Respighi’s opera Lucrezia. There’s Bellinzani’s cantata for two voices depicting Lucretia and Tarquin. The climax is Handel’s solo cantata La Lucrezia. The troupe was fortunate to have plenty of material on the subject to choose from; they could have cast an even wider net and sampled Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, Shakespeare’s great narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece” (hasn’t someone, sometime, set some of it to music?), and more.
Other pieces function as commentary: a fiery solo caprice for violin by Locatelli; captivatingly arranged selections from the Codex (which is also, of course, behind Orff’s famous Carmina Burana cantata); the New York premiere of an immersive found-sounds piece by François Sarhan; and others.
In any patchwork show, some movements or passages are bound to stand out. Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen‘s gentle rendition of the folk song “Silver Dagger” may not have seethed like Joan Baez’s classic version, but it resonated with quiet strength. Rosen’s extended Handel soliloquy closed the evening with a tragic thrill.
Bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton (excellent in the abovementioned La Susanna), commanding in the Codex Buranus selections, was especially effective singing against type in the female role in “Ich was ein chint so wolgetan” (“I was a child and fair to see”).
Dancers Emily Jo and Justin Mock actualized director Shadi Ghaheri’s sinewy choreography with graceful athleticism. I-Jen Fang’s heroic percussion solo in Power’s piece “stopped” the show (if for a little too long).
The seven-piece band reformulated itself for each number, playing assortments of instruments, not all of them baroque, in various combinations and with easy skill.
In spite of its collage nature, the show did cast a spell, aided by Victoria Bain’s colorful lighting and Ao Li’s geometrical set. Cantata Profana’s versatility and creativity seem boundless.
Lucretia played May 23-25 at the HERE Arts Center in New York.