The Rape of Lucretia
New Camerata Opera
The Flea Theater
May 4, 2019
Benjamin Britten’s 1946 chamber opera, set in c. 600 BC when a wildly debauched Rome was under Etruscan rule, is accidentally prescient. As presented by New Camerata Opera, the work, intelligently directed by Bea Goodwin, makes the most of the abuse of male power, retelling a legend that has as much (maybe more) significance today than it ever did.
Goodwin incorporates American Sign Language with ASL actor Amelia Hensley shadowing mezzo-soprano Allison Gish who sings the title role. Per Goodwin, the signing showcases voicelessness, a different side of victim trauma. As Hensley signs, the Male and Female Choruses, (Victor Khodadad and the magnificently-voiced Helena Brown), comment on the action. The libretto, by Ronaldo Duncan, contains lyrical passages such as “the thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light,” as well as many Christian references that seemed overly preachy and a bit confusing as these words move the story to yet another time period. Happily, the final statement by the Chorus referencing the link between the music and our experience of human tragedy brings us back to ancient times.
The effective set by Luther Frank is little more than hanging white drapery that conveys a Roman feeling, enhanced by costumes by Sarah Dixey that hint at the same period (although rethinking Gish’s Act I dress might be a good idea—it’s unflattering and oddly revealing.) The entire work is deliberately limited including the acting, perhaps to encourage audience reaction to the powerful emotions brought out by the music and the on-stage thirteen-piece orchestra with very forceful tympani.
The actual rape, when powerful Stan Lacy as Tarquinius, Prince of Rome, refuses to accept virtuous Lucretia’s “no” is horrific in implication but a bit clumsy in execution as the singers roll around the floor almost trivializing the power of an actual rape. On the other hand, when Tarquinius in a burst of drunken lust rides back to the city to seduce Lucretia, the staging of the ride with several singers grouped together and drinking horns standing in for the horse’s ears gave the passage a tremendous, frightening intensity.
As the performance unfolds, Lucretia is undone by her virtue which makes her a perfect target. Although in her sleep she kisses Tarquinius, we know she was dreaming of her husband, Collatinus, since as soon as she awakens she fights back—and loses. The next morning when Collatinus returns, she victimizes herself since neither he nor the women of her household find her to blame. When she sings “If it were all a dream, then waking would be less of a nightmare” we understand that Lucretia cannot forgive herself so suicide is her only solution. Gish started the passage with tremendous power; then, as she gathered orchids to make a wreath, chillingly echoed by Hensley, her voice became softer making her pain increasingly moving.
Music Director Justin Bischof conducted with a steady, economical hand, clearly paying great attention to orchestra and singers. Of these, besides Gish and Brown, I admired baritone Andrew Dwan’s Collatinus.
This isn’t an “enjoyable” opera as the music isn’t familiar and creates a sense of unease throughout. Other than the interlude in Act II when Lucretia’s servants sing about the lovely day and beautiful flowers, there isn’t a moment to relax into, and these passages stand in sharp contrast to Lucretia’s anguish which follows. The story line is powerful, pointed and a troublesome reminder of today even though the work was created some time ago. What this production does is make you think about how women have continued to be degraded—by others and by themselves—while considering what can be done to ensure that their status never returns to its earlier condition. This clean, chilling production deserves to be seen and noted.