Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia premiered this past Monday at Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, an unusual space for a rarely seen 20th-century opera. The EpiCenter took on amphitheater arrangement with audience surrounding the main stage and steps leading from main stage to musicians who played from the 2nd floor. Sarna Lapine directed, Grammy Award-winning soprano Kelley O’Connor took on Lucretia, and internationally acclaimed baritone Duncan Rock played Tarquinius.
Lucretia’s story is rooted in historical fact around 30 BC: the tale of a Roman matron’s rape and subsequent suicide has lived on in the Western imagination for 2,500 years. Her image has been used as a symbol of courageous resistance to the oppression of a Roman tyrant. So what does it mean today as we view it? As Ian Donaldson points out in The Rape of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations “steadfastness of a woman serves as a moral example to an oppressed people, inciting them to revolt. The Tyrant is overthrown because of a sexual transgression.” This rings true today as for the bards of ancient Rome.
The opera starts with Male and Female “choruses,” performed by Jesse Darden and Antonia Tamer, explaining the current situation in Rome as if detached observers from an educated Christian era. Throughout the opera the Male chorus narrates the thoughts of the male characters while Female chorus represents females in the cast.
The musical score vividly pulls us into a shimmering soundworld that evokes empathy for Lucretia. We see a country at war, a political vendetta that becomes personal after Tarquinius, Junius, and Collatinus each decide to test his wives’ chastity by paying an unexpected visit from military encampment to their homes in Rome. He discovers that all except faithful Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, have engaged in infidelity. Calling all women whores, bitter Junius goads young Tarquinius, the king’s son, into testing Lucretia’s chastity himself.
A 12-piece chamber ensemble lead by David Angus, who also played piano, chimed in, and every flicker of color spoke volumes. The harpist Ina Zdorovetchi added a great tone to the ensemble. Britten idiomatically makes each orchestral instrument challenging but essential and builds wonderful drama considering the small forces.
As Lucretia sleeps, Tarquinius creeps into her bedroom and awakens her with a kiss. She begs him to go, but certain that she desires him, he rapes her. Although before this act there’s a long dialogue, to an extent of sounding like a negotiation between the oppressor and the oppressed. Why all the effort and conversation you may ask? Because he ultimately wants Lucretia to desire him, to disprove her husband’s assertion of her chastity. But she resolutely resists.
Britten’s music adds true depth to the timing and pacing, the inflections of each phrase of the performance. Kelley O’Connor and Brandon Cedel delivered vocal lines showing indefatigability and Margaret Lattimore shared her big prominent, lustrous sound. David McFerrin, Brandon Cedel and Duncan Rock confidently embodied scary tyrants of ancient Rome.
Joey Moro’s lighting design greatly expanded the spectrum of the chiaroscuro set through story-attentive effects such highlighting the Male and Female chorus vs the story happening on stage vs the military encampment vs Lucretia’s home followed by violence scenes.
Taking a minimalist approach, stage director Sarna placed the chamber orchestra on the 2nd floor of the EpiCenter behind somewhat transparent curtains. The small performing space limited the action to advancing the plot with simplicity: one table could hold booze or weapons. A schematic bed with white linen that served as a rape scene as well for Lucretia’s suicide, which Collatinus turned into a symbol to incite the public to rebellion against Tarquinius.
The Boston Lyric Opera run continues Wednesday, Friday, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.