IN: Reviews

“To Harness Song to Human Tragedy”


Nurse Bianca (Margaret Lattimore, r.) consoles Lucretia (Kelley O’Connor) who pines for her husband Collatinus (Lisa Voll photo)

This season, Boston explores the story of Lucretia, from the Gardner Museum’s programming centered around reunited paintings of Lucretia and Virginia (a mythological doublet), to this week’s Boston Lyric Opera production of The Rape of Lucretia by Britten/Duncan. The tale is eviscerating, the art harrowing, Britten’s music fascinating and this production amazing. It is well worth braving the uncomfortable seats to see this production.

At its core, this chamber opera is a story of three entangled lives and has ancient roots. The story of Lucretia is told in book I, chapters 57-58 of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (The City from Its Founding), written in the time of Caesar Augustus. The story of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), Etruscan King of Rome, and his rape of Collatinus’ chaste wife, Lucretia, leads to turmoil domestic and political. This act of domestic violence leads to the overthrow of the monarchy and the foundation of the Roman republic. In this version of the tale, there is a fellow Roman soldier, Junius, who is by turns a drunken carouser and an ambitious politician. (It would seem this Junius is an iteration of Livy’s Lucius Junius Brutus, who is usually known by his cognomen.) The personal is political; it is also historical.

Britten sets a libretto by Ronald Duncan (with substantial input, it would seem, from Britten himself), after André Obey’s 1931 play, Le viol de Lucrèce. In addition to Lucretia, Tarquin, and Collatinus, there is Junius and two servants of Lucretia—Bianca and Lucia. There are also the additional parts of Male Chorus and Female Chorus, each sung by one person. The Chorus discuss Christ and love (as in Act I, Scene 1:  “We’ll view these human passions and these years /through eyes which once have wept with / Christ’s own tears.”). These two roles represent Britten’s contemporaries responding to early Roman history and also the meaning of Rome to a Britain in 1946 still reeling from World War II, still seeing Italy as an axis power, all while living through ongoing rationing. Britten recasts ancient history as modern trauma. While many read this libretto as a confusing and unsuccessful mash-up of time and theme, I read this in a different context. I see Britten in The Rape of Lucretia (1946) grappling with the aftermath of war, the destruction of lives and governments, the tipping of love into jealousy and hate—all themes that will find more nuanced and magisterial expression in War Requiem (1961), among other works.

In this production the Chorus are dressed in 1940s British fashion. The soldiers Tarquinius, Collatinus, and Junius wear pants and jackets over bare chests (perhaps more inspired by Mad Max than sword and sandal epics); Bianca and Lucia wear linen servant costumes (Bianca especially would look at home in a Pre-Raphaelite painting), and Lucretia is in a similar flowing linen dress, then a white shift. Tarquinius, Etruscan Prince and heir to the Roman throne, is distinguished only by the gaudy colors on his jacket and a metal baldric or girdle slung over a should and dangling down his chest. Sometimes the markers of power are subtle, sometimes meaningless. A cast of eight; a story that resonates across millennia, and the costuming decisions of Robert Perdziola reflect this.

Lucretia (Kelley O’Connor) sleeps while the Female Chorus and Male Chorus (Antonia Tamer and Jesse Darden) foretell her fate.
David Angus conducts the chamber ensemble from the keyboard (Lisa Voll photo)

The staging (Sarna Lapine) takes advantage of the modern/industrial space at Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Fort Point. This is a production in the round with audience surrounding most of the raised platform stage. As in Broadway productions of recent years, the orchestra is no longer in a pit; here they performed on a mezzanine behind a scrim. Video screens around the space projected David Angus (conducting from the piano keyboard in his loft, where the chamber ensemble of instrumentalists were gathered). For much of the work, this is a portrait of a divided world:  men encamped outside Rome, and women at home in the city. The bet that activates the narrative (Roman soldiers checking up on the fidelity of the women back home) focuses on the men’s unhappiness. Drunken carousing in the camp (Act I, Scene 1) is offset by women spinning at home (Act I, Scene 2). When Tarquinius invades Lucretia’s domicile (Act II), the gender-segregated world collapses and so too does societal order. Matrona Lucretia is broken to the anger and jealousy of Tarquinius, who both tires of and mentally enrolls her in his “barren bevy of listless whores.” Boundaries are crossed, destruction ensues. Again, this is not distant history, but viscerally present manifestations of destruction.

Sixty-three years after the première of The Rape of Lucretia the story acquires additional resonances. Political jabs at “Tarquinius Superbus, the Proud” could be ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. The violation of Lucretia reads differently in the #MeToo moment. Shame motivating Lucretia’s suicide has always bothered me since I first read this passage in Livy; although I understand it, I still want her to stab her rapist rather than Lucretia. BLO made bold to program this opera today; I applaud their decision to engage with these topics in the world of opera, and also to partner with Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Casa Myrna. Awareness and education can lead to sure and certain hopes for a better future, and that, at least, comes through in Livy’s narrative, and in Britten and Duncan’s.

The opera begins with tenor Jesse Darden (Male Chorus) and soprano Antonia Tamer (Female Chorus), setting the narrative and offering commentary. Here acting is minimal; this is more in the style of oratorio. Both sang with clear and expressive voice, bringing us into the action. Collatinus, husband of Lucretia, found insightful and powerful expression in bass-baritone Brandon Cedel. This role calls for a wide emotional range as well as a wealth of vocal expression, often subdued; Cedel delivered. Baritone David McFerrin sang the tricky role of Junius with style, verve, and grace. As written, this is a disjointed role, lurching between personal emotion and political ambition; McFerrin brought this conflict to life in his performance. Baritone Duncan Rock gave us a Tarquinius who was well sung and reprehensible as a character: highly trained singing combined with strong acting chops combined to give us a despicable figure prowling upon the stage. Soprano Sara Womble made the most of a minor role in her Lucia, capturing the innocence and naïveté of this young woman; I cringed for her fawning on the prince. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore endowed Bianca with strength, wisdom, and compassion. Finally, the titular role of Lucretia found impassioned voice in Kelley O’Connor. In under two hours (performed here without intermission) this role moves swiftly from sunny happiness to darkest despair. O’Connor inhabited this shift with verve, where others might have faltered in the face of vertigo. Lucretia’s appearance in Act I, Scene 2 is, in O’Connor’s take, endued with the poise and power of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. In Act II, Scene 2, O’Connor delivered a mad scene harkening back to Bellini’s Lucia. Her performance brought tears to the eyes of audience members.

Junius (David McFerrin), encourages unity with Tarquinius (Duncan Rock) (Lisa Voll photo)

David Angus conducted a tight and moving performance. Britten’s musical motifs came through and were connected across the whole of the opera, thanks to an insightful handling of balance and voice. All of the musicians (by my count, 13) delivered a clearly articulated, widely expressive, and beautifully moving reading of the score. The hard surfaces of the venue make for particular acoustic challenges. In one or two small spots the singing seemed thin and the orchestra muddied but on the whole I commend all the musicians for surmounting the obstacles of a warehouse space with ease.

In ways so subtle as almost to be missed, there are cautious intimations of hope for the future in this opera. At the end of Act II, Scene 1, the Chorus comment on Tarquinius’ rape of Lucretia:

Nothing impure survives,
all passion perishes,
virtue has one desire
to let its blood flow
back to the wounds of Christ.

Troubling theology, and we certainly are more suspect today after more recent, and ongoing, revelations, about the linkages between virtue and Church (although Britten himself is rather damning on this topic in Billy Budd when he addresses innocence, evil, and power). But I think this is a hopeful plea from Britten, almost an article of faith, as he wishes and wills into existence the demise of that which is impure.

I wish I shared Britten’s hope. This powerful and moving production reaffirms a faith in the positive and healing powers of music. I want that to be enough to counter the world outside the performance. 

Continues through Sunday.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. OK, I’ll try to be quickly to points, time being short. Very effective performance that held together–until Britten’s unfortunate ending. Yes, I’ve often faulted BLO in the past for inept staging, “Eurotrashing”, etc. but this time boy did it work–and it was well-performed as well! Yes, I sat at right-angles to the stage BUT the action was designed to be seen practically “in the round” like the old Tufts Arena Theatre. Having the orchestra “behind” and relying on monitors has been used for space reasons as well by Midsummer Opera out of necessity. Those of you who chose to miss “Lucretia”–kick yourself; you did wrong!
    Two problems however, neither really arising out of performance. Britten “tacked on” a “Christian” ending material which didn’t fit the earlier story material at all and seemed to “deaden” the story up to that point leaving one to wonder why he did when sticking to the story would have made a better ending. I made a note to go research Britten’s political and religious views and whether he had converted to Catholicism which was and is very common among the elite cultural classes in Britain. But particularly distressing was the turning of the performance into a virtual rape-crisis meeting afterwards, sort of like the Wellstone funeral of 2002 of unpleasant memory. Unfortunately, BLO was back to its “Eurotrash” form in this. I’ve already bought my ticket for Handmaid’s Tale–I should read the book beforehand to flesh out what I’ve already “divined” from remarks about the subject.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 19, 2019 at 9:00 pm

  2. Britten did not convert to Catholicism. Lucretia’s unstable mix of pagan brutality, sexual politics, and passionate Christian moralizing, shows Britten struggling to find meaning in the post-war world.

    Ronald Duncan’s compact libretto for Lucretia, after André Obey’s 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrèce, is ultimately based on Shakespeare’s poem, but omits a crucial scene, in which Tarquin threatens to kill a slave to dishonor Lucretia. Italian modernist Ottorino Respighi’s last opera (Lucrezia, 1936-37) was also based on Obey’s play.

    Obey presents two narrators (called Male and Female Chorus by Duncan) as objective, humane soloists who distance the audience from the action, commenting ‘out of time’ (as in Greek tragedy). The recent Glyndebourne revival of Britten’s work locates the Chorus as a pair of war-traumatized archaeologists, piecing the narrative together from found fragments.

    The success of Lucretia and its compact production inspired Eric Crozier to propose the classical tragedy of Phaedra as his next opera, but it was three decades before Britten and Peter Pears returned to the idea. That tense, brooding work, adapted from Racine’s masterful Phèdre, brought a similar heroine to life: the instrument of others’ suffering, Phaedra falls victim to her own impulses, inspiring both terror and pity (Odyssey Opera presented this work in Boston three seasons ago).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — March 22, 2019 at 11:12 am

  3. Further reading on Britten: for those interested

    New scholarly work considers Britten’s personal approach to relationships as interpreted through legend and libretti: “Britten’s Dubious Trysts” by Lloyd Whitesell, a sixty-page overview of Britten’s sexuality and its influence on his operatic work, made a splash when it was published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (56/3, Fall 2003).

    The four best new scholarly books to examine spectacle, desire, violence, and queer representation in opera are Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat (1993); Mary Ann Smart’s Siren Songs (2000), the opera-facing collection En Travesti (ed. Backmer, 2000), and the interdisciplinary collection Acting on the Past: Historical Performance Across the Disciplines (ed. Franko, 2000).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — March 22, 2019 at 11:13 am

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