On Friday, October 19th Opera Brittenica, a musical mrganization devoted to “exploring and performing the varied works of Benjamin Britten,” debuted with a production of Britten’s striking chamber opera the Rape of Lucretia (1946). The English libretto, set by Ronald Duncan after a play by André Obey (itself based on Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece 1594), is dramatically well conceived if occasionally weighed down by a self-conscious purple hue (What are the “Oatmeal Slippers of Sleep” anyway?). Britten, however, added an anachronistic and problematic frame to the libretto that interprets the pre-Christian events on stage in Christian terms. Dealing with this frame and the depiction of the rape itself has traditionally proven the challenge for most productions of this opera, and Brittenica has found a worthy solution.
The opera is constructed in two acts of two scenes each, divided by an interlude. In the first scene, set in a camp outside Rome, the three male roles, Tarquinius (the Etruscan Prince of Rome) Collatinus (Lucretia’s husband) and Junius Brutus (the eventual founder of the Roman republic) are drinking and lamenting the general infidelity of women. The drama commences when Junius is decried a cuckold by Tarquinius. Junius responds that Tarquinius’s wife too has been unfaithful and both note that of all the women of Rome, Collatinus’s wife Lucretia is the only woman who has remained chaste. Thus when Junius exclaims that the Etruscan prince does not dare to seduce Lucretia, it is a challenge. In a response partly out of bravado and partly out of political ambition (Collatinus’s power is based on Lucretia’s chastity), Tarquinius embarks on a frantic ride to Rome where he intends to seduce Lucretia.
Baritone Zachary Ballard’s portrayal of Junius’s diginified but dimwitted character is excellent in both gesture and expression. His height contrasts well with Baritone Adrian Rosales’s stout Tarquinius. Rosalies’s comedic physicality, including his wing-flapping cuckold and his ride to Rome (itself a dark premonition of the rape that he will commit when he gets there), elicited audible laughter from the audience. RaShaun Campbell’s Collatinus completed the triumvirate with an occasionally booming but generally powerful baritone that grounded the ensemble both aurally and in gravitas. Britten’s score for this first scene is extraordinarily chromatic, culminating with a lithe, twisting, and somewhat ambiguously defined leitmotiv setting Lucretia’s name. The score was well articulated by Geoffrey Pope who led the 13 piece ensemble through a few opening night jitters to a warm and expressive rendering of Britten’s complicated score.
In the transition to the next scene at Lucretia’s estate, we discover that the dissonant leitmotiv is not related to her character because the music suddenly shifts to one of great consonance at her appearance. Lucretia (played by an angelically winged Sophie Michaux) is spinning cloth with her adoptive mother Bianca (Stephanie Benkert) and her servant Lucia (soprano Katelyn Parker Bray). The three women provide an endearing ensemble that is repeatedly interrupted by the approaching Tarquinius. When the Prince finally enters the chamber, the chromaticism returns connecting the leitmotiv heard on Lucretia’s name directly to his lustful ambition.
Benkert’s Bianca is an appealing woman, singing with an exacting instrument despite its warmth and bright hues. Bray gave her Lucia a voice that was almost soubrette with its bright and yet unblemished tone, reflective of her character’s simple innocence, despite her obvious attraction to Tarquinius. Michaux’s Lucretia, however, sang with the dark plush voice of a mezzo. She carried herself with a commanding elegance appropriate to Rome’s most chaste citizen. At the end of the act, and in a beautiful ensemble, the three women bid Tarquinius good night.
The remaining two characters, the male and female chorus (each a solo part) are important dramatic innovations of both the opera and this production. Not only do they provide the audience with the necessary narration and moral judgement of events onstage, at some points they actually instigate the action. Recognizing this, stage director Giselle Ty has the male chorus not only narrate, but spur Tarquinius on in his ride to Rome (it is the Male Chorus’s belt that Tarquinius uses to whip his horse). In Ty’s ingenious and critical staging, the choruses’ roles, which were given an anachronistic and righteous Christian morality by Britten himself, are reinterpreted in the modern understanding of religious self-righteousness as a base human expression of hypocrisy and sadistic intolerance. As the male chorus, tenor Jonathan Price gave a charismatic portrayal even as he delivered his lines with biting sarcasm (“When Tarquinius desires, the Tarquinius dares”). Soprano Amal El-Shrafi, as the female chorus, seemed to have a little trouble finding her full voice in the first moments of the opera, but soon it came shining through with a strength and power that matched her character’s presence onstage.
The most innovative aspect of Ty’s staging (and Hazel Lever’s choreography), however, is the outright depiction of the rape. Unlike most productions, the act is not understated, subtle or mediated by some false measure of Lucretia’s lust. Tarquinius’s interruption of Lucretia’s dream is intrusive, violent and abrupt. He chases her around the stage; in his anger he slowly pulls her down from a pedestal of chairs, tosses her about the stage and violates her. The scene is awkward, appalling and terrifying to watch—it is a rape.
The next day, when Bianca and Lucia find out about Tarquinius’s act, Lucretia enters into a delirium and sends for her husband with a symbolic orchid. At his return she is now dressed in red with a purple stain across her face and arms. Collatinus attempts to comfort her by telling her that there is no shame in this, that he has already forgiven her. His attempt to comfort her, however, leads her to the realization that her morality has left her fully ostracized from the people around her. She knows she has not committed a crime for which he should forgive her, but only that she is the victim of a crime. In response to her desperate isolation she mutilates herself and dies.
Historically, it is said that Lucretia’s death sparked the uprising that cast the Etrustcan leaders out of Rome and led Junius Brutus to suddenly become politically savvy and create the Roman Republic. Britten, however, had other plans. In his opera, these characters, in a grand ensemble passacaglia, cry out in frustration “Is this it all?” At the end and in response, the choruses provide a Christian interpretation of the events, stating that Lucretia is not the last innocent who will die for their sins. The opera ends with “In His Passion Is our hope Jesus Christ, Saviour. He is all!” This anachronistic Christian frame (the Christian interpretation of events appears at the opera’s opening too) is often and correctly cited as the primary weakness of the work. However, by integrating the choruses into the dramatic action, Ty has given the Christian revisionism itself a historical context, adding it to the institutions that the opera criticizes. In this way she has somewhat mitigated the cumbersome contrivance of Britten’s frame.
Overall, the production is a sharp one, created with a wealth of imagination and despite an obvious dearth of resources: it is worth seeing. The theater at the Cambridge YMCA, while in some disrepair, made for a warm atmosphere, provided decent acoustics and contributed to the production’s overall hipness. As Executive Director Joshua Collier announced early in the evening, almost the entire production was “crowdfunded” through indiegogo. Boston opera goers are quite used to this model. Due to the many conservatories in Boston and entrepreneurially savvy students who study here, the city has no problem creating remarkable productions on a shoestring budget and unfortunately that has become the primary way that opera is now produced in Boston.
Opera Brittenica’s advertised materials seem to indicate that the company’s name refers to the musical genre “opera.” Yet, the rest of the season (Song Cycle: On This Island in November, “A Very Britten Christmas” in December, Song Cycle: Winter Words in January and the church parable The Burning Fiery Furnace in May) seems to indicate a different meaning of the word opera, as in the plural of opus or “works.” While I’m not sure that a company that focusses exclusively on Britten’s operas would survive in Boston, a musical organization that is devoted to all of his works might fare better. Whatever their identity, we look forward with enthusiasm to whatever comes next from Opera Brittenica.
Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday at the YMCA Theater, Cambridge.