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.
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.
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