Lustful princes, or the proximate cause of the rise of the Republic
Classical story, 20th century opera, contemporary theme
The Rape of Lucretia
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Ronald Duncan
Boston Lyric Opera
There is much that entrances the viewer in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of The Rape of Lucretia, despite its heavy thematic content. The story recounts how Tarquinius, Prince of Rome, hearing of Lucretia’s legendary loyalty to her husband Collatinus, decides to defile her chastity, triggering the events that lead to the demise of the monarchy. A palpable tension seeped throughout the production: from discordant drinking rows between the soldiers to the sense of foreboding for the climax that the title proclaims, accompanied by a fruitless yearning for a different, less gruesome ending.
Although the opera was sung in English, I often found myself glancing at the surtitles to catch all of the beautiful libretto, which, unlike in most operas, read like poetry. The dialogue was replete with evocative imagery, slant rhyme, colorful metaphors, and occasional cumbersome phrases, like “prodigious liberality of self-coined obsequious flattery.” Next to the surtitles, behind some gauzy curtains, was the orchestra, which I wish hadn’t been so hidden. The musicians skillfully alternated between lyrical passages conveying all the joy of spring flowers, staccato moments of tension, and elegiac stanzas of regret and sorrow. The conductor, who directed these expert mood manipulators, exhibited his own dexterity by playing the solo piano during recitative passages.
Britten’s music played a supporting role to the powerful delivery by the singers. Collatinus’s (Brandon Cedel) sonorous bass-baritone swelled through the cavernous performance space. His artistry was evident in his conspicuous but subdued pride for his wife’s virtuous character and in the way he wrapped his voice around her in comfort and support in the aftermath of her ordeal. Kelly O’Connor portrayed a resilient, fierce Lucretia, whose every movement and every glance spoke of her distrust and disdain for Tarquinius (Duncan Rock). She conveyed such a depth of despair, such a well of unwarranted shame, that the heart bled to watch her. Bianca (Margaret Lattimore) and Lucia (Sara Womble), Lucretia’s maids, were a duo whose singing was lucid as a mountain lake and shone especially in non-lexical vocables.
The staging made opportune use of the unusual performance space. The stage was encircled at close quarters by the audience members except where bleachers ascended to the orchestra platform. The singers would move up and down these steps, as well as around the balconies on the outer edges of the space, providing a welcome dynamism to an art that can sometimes be so distant or so static as to appear two-dimensional. The costume design was tasteful, except for Lucretia’s dress, which was absolutely gorgeous: a mosaic pattern from a yellow-orange palette with a cut that blended Classical and modern style.
Following Ancient Greek theatrical tradition, the Male and Female Chorus (Jesse Darden, Antonia Tamer) comment on the ongoing tragedy, as if from the future. As a result, the plot is bookended with Christian moralizing, and the admirable character of Lucretia and her suffering are belittled by an uninvited comparison to Jesus Christ. While I think the opera would have been improved by the omission of these passages, I found a small consolation in the pleasures provided by the Male Chorus’ impressive vocal control.
I imagine that the same economic realities that led Britten to develop the concept of “chamber opera” for The Rape of Lucretia, which features a smaller cast and an orchestra of thirteen players, influenced the BLO’s decision to stage this opera. Fortunately, it was a decision in the audience’s favor.