Anne Midgette: “The Rape of Lucretia,” by Benjamin Britten, is an opera about a vengeful, angry, lustful, devastating act, played out before the eyes of a man and a woman, the male and female chorus, who comment on and don’t quite influence the action. It came to the Wolf Trap Opera on Friday night in an intense wallop of a well-sung production.
Often, the Wolf Trap Opera cuts grand-opera-scale works down to fit its diminutive stage at the Barns; but “Lucretia,” written a year after “Peter Grimes,” was Britten’s first self-described foray into chamber opera, and, with eight singers and a small orchestra, it is just the right size for the Barns. Yet “chamber opera” gives a misleading sense of “Lucretia’s” scale. It may not have a large orchestra, but this opera, as presented and gently updated by director Louisa Muller, was at times downright monumental in its statements, with even its whispers sheathed in iron.
Philip Kennicott: I’ve always struggled (sometimes successfully) to like “Lucretia.” It has a dreadful libretto by Ronald Duncan, who whipped up a limp trifle of what we would call SAT words (moiety, quietus). The story is also framed as an apologetic for Christianity, which seems to me to doubly victimize Lucretia. She becomes merely a pretext for the imposition of Christian sexual morality on pagan Rome. Like so much of what Britten wrote, it has hauntingly effective moments (on Friday, the “goodnight” scene at the end of Act I, and the reunion of Lucretia and Collatinus in Act II); but it is also terribly austere, and to make it work requires exceptional staging.
Still, the attractive thing about the opera — especially for a company like Wolf Trap that works with young singers — is its relatively democratic distribution of labor over the eight characters, all of whom get at least a little time in the sun. I particularly admired Brenton Ryan in the Peter Pears role of Male Chorus (Pears was Britten’s lover and a distinguished tenor); Ryan’s diction was some of the best of the evening. Also, the bright, silvery tone of Amy Owens as Lucia, the maid, and the warm, soothing sounds of Sarah Larsen as the nurse, Bianca.
ALM: I thought the production was savvy to fold the Christianity into the action by making the Male Chorus a pastor, creating a context in which the Christianizing was a desperate but perhaps futile attempt to make sense of a harrowing tale. (I found Ryan strained in places but admired the beauty of his “white” light high singing.) The contrasting Female Chorus, sung warmly by Kerriann Otaño, was a kind of fallen woman, a tough chick in a leather jacket. Thus the gender dynamics of the chorus counterbalanced those in the story, which contrasts the brutal Roman soldiers (led by Will Liverman, with a lithe, metallic baritone in the unenviable role of the rapist Tarquinius, offsetting the gentle, blunt bass of Christian Zaremba as Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband), with the gentle female sphere of Lucretia, which Britten drapes with luminosity, and which J’Nai Bridges invested with regal anguish.
As for austerity: This is a tremendously compact score, but I found this performance (conducted by Craig Kier) helped spotlight the seething emotions roiling beneath the surface of the sometimes agonizingly spare musical gestures. This is only problematic in that the piece came so alive that I found it, due to its subject matter, extremely difficult to watch.
PK: I didn’t pay too much attention to the contrast you highlighted between the Male Chorus dressed in clerical garb, and the more louche attire of Otaño’s Female Chorus. Now that you mention it, I see the point, though in the performance it wasn’t enough to get me over the fundamental hurdle of the piece: the Christian manipulation of the story for theological and philosophical gain. (There’s a long history of putting poor Lucretia to this service, most notably from St. Augustine, who can’t quite conceive of rape outside the paradigm of reputation, shame and guilt.)
As you say, it’s impossible to watch this opera today without being keenly and uncomfortably alert to how it treats rape. Wolf Trap distributed a printout flyer with the program encouraging people to discuss the opera using the Twitter tag #imwithlucretia: “Allowing Lucretia to serve as a proxy for victims of sexual assault helps us grapple with this essential, but difficult subject.” It’s a smart idea to connect the opera with a larger social conversation outside the opera house. But this particular opera is so deeply embedded in an unregenerate historical era in terms of sexual violence, male power and women’s dignity that I find the project a bit unnerving. Rape, then, was about the loss of chastity, purity or innocence (and that is, alas, how I think Britten conceived it, given how many of his other operas deal with the same theme). Today, finally, we’re thinking about how rape impacts the emotional and physical lives of women. Before we say “I’m With Lucretia” it’s important to understand what, exactly, Livy, or Augustine, or Shakespeare, or Britten, actually thought Tarquinius did to Lucretia.
ALM: Well, rape is unnerving, to say the very least. I think to stage this piece today without acknowledging that would be irresponsible, regardless of what the piece’s (male) creators and its centuries-old tradition meant by “rape.” It is horrifying, fundamentally, to see rape aestheticized, and the Wolf Trap production is smart not to pull its punches. It even touches on the underlying, and very relevant, race issue. Tarquinius is an Etruscan conqueror; there’s a strong anti-Etruscan, anti-outsider sentiment among the Romans in the work; and casting both Tarquinius and Lucretia with African American singers drives home the point very effectively. (Liverman deserves extra praise for his bravery in grappling so effectively with such a challenging character.) The alternative to opening the work up for discussion, it seems to me, would be to push the audience away with the sophistic argument that “rape” doesn’t really mean what you think it means, which would counteract the whole point.
PK: I wouldn’t want to push the audience away, or have the company stage it without acknowledging the complexity and ugliness of the subject. But you used a word I thought about a lot during the performance: “aestheticized.” Aestheticizing rape is a repugnant idea. Yet this opera only works if it is to some degree stylized, meaning, it is so formal and so chilly in its language that it wants to be kept at some Brechtian distance from the audience. And that leads me to the one musical qualm I had: Strange to say, but I think the musical expression was too heightened, too dramatic, for the piece to hold together. Vocally, everyone was best when singing in a more conversational than “operatic” dynamic range. The ensemble sometimes overplayed, as well, and consistently sounded best in the softer or more restrained passages. “Rape of Lucretia” is, again like many other Britten works, a fundamentally claustrophobic score, yet on Friday (and for reasons I entirely understand) everyone seemed to want to break out of that sense of rigid confinement.
ALM: I take your point, but this was exactly one of the things I liked about this production: It was more conventionally “operatic” than other “Lucretias” I’ve seen in the past. (We haven’t mentioned Shea Owens’s taut baritone as Junius.)
PK: After this, I better understand my reservations about the piece. With Britten, especially in the chamber operas (“Turn of the Screw,” in particular), you sense this scrim between you and the emotions. And that barrier is somehow fundamentally connected to the composer’s own conflicts, and emotional reticence. This performance fights against that, not always successfully, but admirably, and for perfectly valid reasons.
“Rape of Lucretia” will be repeated on Wednesday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., at the Wolf Trap Opera. For more information visit wolftrap.org.