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REVIEW: Journey North Opera Company Bounds Back with Powerful Rape of Lucretia

A promotional photo for Journey North Opera Company’s production of The Rape of Lucretia. Photo by Justin Sims Photography.

Journey North Opera Company’s been in hibernation for a long time. Not since 2015 has the company produced in the Twin Cities, back when it was still called Twin Cities Fringe Opera. If JNOC’s renewed vigor is any indication, more organizations should take a multi-year nap.

The work chosen for JNOC’s return is The Rape of Lucretia, a chamber opera written by Benjamin Britten in the waning months of World War 2. The performance, staged at the Minnsky Theatre in Northeast Minneapolis, is a viscerally powerful two-hour event.

The story of The Rape of Lucretia is an episode out of Roman history, describing a singular events that inspired the Romans to shake off foreign domination and found their republic. Tarquinius, the prince of the Romans’ Etruscans overlords, decides to seduce Lucretia, the chaste wife of Collatinus. When she rebuffs his advances, he rapes her. After he flees the scene, Lucretia tells the Romans of Tarquinius’s misdeeds before killing herself to redeem her honor. The Romans rise up and drive the Etruscans out, then establish the Roman Republic.

Lucretia (1666) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, a painting at MIA depicting part of the same story as the Benjamin Britten opera.

Sound familiar? You might know the event because there’s a painting of Lucretia the Minneapolis Institute of Art.┬áSuch is history and lore, anyways. Britten’s opera focuses on three events from the larger narrative: the setup, the rape, and the suicide.

The setup is half narrated by Wesley Frye (dressed as a satyr, as Male Chorus) and Amy Wolf (similar, as Female Chorus), and half enacted by Tarqunius (Sullivan Ojala Helmbolt) and the generals Collatinus (Joel Mathias) and Junius (Joe Allen). Amanda Carlson’s direction suffuses the scene with menacing glower and a tautness that seems poised to boil over.

Musically, the production excels, with strong voices and a full chamber opera ensemble. In the live acoustic of the Minnsky Theatre, more than two chorus members is unnecessary; each voice and instrument can be heard with great clarity. (Sit in the first several rows for the best balance.) Even when the action moves to the very rear of the theatre, neither intelligibility nor intention is compromised. Mezzo-soprano Briana Moynihan (as Lucretia) is a standout among the talented cast.

An unusual staging element is the use of an aerialist (Jolie Meshbesher) through much of the opera. This addition adds much to the visceral feel, and Meshbesher’s performance is mesmerizing. By the time Tarquinius is attempting to do the titular misdeed, Helmbolt’s performance is already terrifying. When he succeeds, it’s every bit as disturbing as it should be.

Journey North Opera Company’s production of The Rape of Lucretia plays through September 8, 2019 at the Minnsky Theatre in Northeast Minneapolis.

Basil Considine