This past weekend San Francisco’s renowned Merola Opera Program presented another one of its wonderful summer opera productions. In celebration of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, one of the composer’s infrequently produced operas, The Rape of Lucretia, became the matrix for the program’s fresh, vigorous and abundantly talented singers.
Written and produced during the deprivation of post-World War II Britain, The Rape of Lucretia was the first opera designated by Britten as a “chamber opera.” The cast of eight singers is supported by a chamber orchestra of a string quintet, a wind quartet (flute doubling piccolo and bass-flute, oboe doubling cor anglais and clarinet doubling bass-clarinet). Horn, harp, percussion and piano complete the mix. The evening’s fine instrumentalists conducted by Mark Morash added virtuosic intensity to Britten’s score, easily compensating for the grander and lusher effects of full orchestra.
The story of Lucretia is a simple one of envy, male pride, and dominance over virtue and has a long history of tellings, beginning with Livy and Ovid and moving through Shakespeare to contemporary dramatists. Britten’s opera was written by poet Ronald Duncan, who based his version on the French playwright André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrèce, who in turn had used much of Shakespeare’s language in the scripting. Most importantly, Duncan used Obey’s innovative figure of the Male Chorus and the Female Chorus. These two characters, existing outside the time of the events like a Greek chorus, relate the story and also explain and expand on the subconscious motivations of the characters.
Director Peter Kazaras has ingeniously staged the opera: making it a modern day military inquiry. The Male Chorus and Female Chorus, sung gorgeously with the right balance of precision and inquisition by tenor Robert Watson and mezzo Linda Barnett, are the lawyers in the case. Their chairs and tables are placed center stage with a solitary witness chair in front of them. To the sides, the military men sit on the audience’s right-hand side and the women sit on the left. Venetian blinds hang on either side of the darkened stage behind the stark furniture.
Because events are filtered through the two Chorus/ lawyers, there is a sense of hearsay about the opera, and the first act seems static in its action and emotional pitch. The courtroom setting enhances the formality of the storytelling.
In the second act, however, this quality of restriction and immobility fuels the music’s expressive upsurge through the rape of Lucretia and her subsequent suicide. The upstart Etruscan commander Tarquinius has come to the home of Lucretia, the only faithful wife among the Roman soldiers and beloved of her husband Collatinus. Tarquinius (Chris Carr) demands hospitality of Lucretia (Kate Allen) and her two serving women Bianca (Katie Hannigan) and Lucia (Alisa Jordheim).
In the middle of the night Tarquinius goes to Lucretia’s room, wakes and rapes her. The entire scene is done with Lucretia seated unmoving in the witness chair, her distress and horror clearly written on her face while her body seems trapped as Tarquinius moves around her with predatory resolve. The music and singing here are forcefully achieved, the severity of the scene and the caught stillness of Lucretia work in contrast to the clarity and dynamics of the instrumentation and the fervor of the singers.
For the most part, the opera is set for a lower and darker palette of voices, the role of Lucretia was originally sung by contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Merola’s Kate Allen, who is from Dublin, is a powerful mezzo with wonderful warmth and a formidable theatrical presence, which was effectively matched with Chris Carr’s strong baritone voice and intense acting skills. Alisa Jordheim’s bell-like soprano blended well with Katie Hannigan’s heavier mezzo tones. David Weigel, as Lucretia’s devoted husband Collatinus, provided a rich bass-baritone and Efraín Solis, singing the role of the jealous and cuckolded Junius, a vibrant baritone.
There is an oddness in the libretto in the two dramatic climaxes of the opera: the rape and Lucretia’s suicide. During Duncan’s writing of the libretto, Britten had requested, “And I was wondering if you could do something to take up the Christian attitude which you’ve touched on earlier …” Duncan, who saw the drama of Lucretia as “spirit defiled by fate”, added references to the death of Christ at several points, ending the opera with “Jesus Christ, Saviour./ He is all!” and a stanza that comments on the defiling of “Great Love” by Fate or man. The sudden shifts to Christian metaphor are disconcerting and somehow inappropriate. Duncan was criticized for this aspect of the libretto over the years until scholarship revealed shared responsibility. Even so, the cohesion of this beautifully sung production bears up under Britten and Duncan’s religious symbolism.
Lucretia is not really a Christ figure, she is a woman abused in ways that are traditional in war and among the powerful. Shifting the text undercuts her grief and her dilemma. This, however, is a contemporary viewpoint. It was revealed in 2012 that the libretto was censored for sexual content before its premiere. The original text suggested in rather heavy-handed metaphor that Lucretia, confronted by Tarquinius’ lust falls prey to the same desire. Post-war censors found this too D.H. Lawrence, and the awkward lines were dropped. Just as well, for though they might explain Lucretia’s deep shame, the lines would have rendered the opera less palatable to a present-day audience.
Photo: Kate Allen as Lucretia (front) and Chris Carr as Tarquinius in the Merola Opera Program’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia.” Photo by Kristen Loken.