The Rape of Lucretia, Benjamin Britten
Sydney Chamber Opera/ Victorian Opera
19 August 2016
Written by Deen Hamaker
Productions of Benjamin Britten’s operas have become a rare event in Sydney and performances of Britten’s most enigmatic work, The Rape of Lucretia, are even more rare. Last performed by The Australian Opera as part of the Festival of Sydney in 1981, Sydney has had to wait 36 years for a company to take up the challenge of producing this mysterious masterpiece.
Sydney Chamber Opera has grown rapidly since its establishment in 2011. It was perhaps fated that this brave company that has brought us sensational productions of Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave and Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Lighthouse would tackle The Rape of Lucretia, the first chamber opera. And what a stunning job they have done.
Britten, fresh from the success of the debut of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells, was commissioned to write an opera for Glyndebourne, the quintessentially English country opera festival. Premiering in 1946 and starring the sensational contralto Kathleen Ferrier as Lucretia, Britten took his inspiration from André Obey’s play Le Viol de Lucréce. He composed an opera that continues to confound audiences, about as different in every way from Peter Grimes. Rather than the traditional opera with chorus and large orchestra, Britten decided to use only the barest minimum of resources, a cast of 8 singers and an orchestra of only 13 players. Britten would go on to produce two more chamber operas with similar dimensions, Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw. But despite the spareness, Britten created a musically rich score of immense beauty yet full of darkness and sorrow.
The story of the virtuous Lucretia and the ravaging Tarquinius in Etruscan Rome of the 5th century BC is simply portrayed before the audience with addition of two narrators, the Male Chorus and Female Chorus, who comment on the action from a Christian perspective. While the portrayal is simple and to the point, the libretto uses very elaborate language to add and also disguise and mystify exactly what is going on. Musically while spare of resources, Britten produced some startling effects such as the unsettling tinkling harps, full of malice and the bombastic Ride to Rome which fizzes with almost baroque decoration.
Musically Sydney Chamber Opera continues to move from strength to strength and has become a genuinely world class company. With this production, they have outdone themselves and set a very high benchmark. With a stellar cast and orchestra led in a masterful performance by Jack Symonds. This is musically one of the finest opera productions that Sydney has seen in the last few years. The musical standards are exceptionally high. This cast and orchestra could play in any opera house in the world. The orchestra of only 13 players gave a sensational reading of Britten’s music. Jack Symonds elicits a benchmark reading of this sublime score. One could hope for a recording release sometime soon.
Starring as Lucretia is the rising star mezzo soprano Anna Dowsley in a stunning performance. Ms Dowsley has produced some fantastic work in recent years for Opera Australia, but nothing has shown the intensity of her Lucretia. With searing pain and gentle pathos, she sweeps all before her. A truly bravura performance. She sails through the very low passages with ease. Jeremy Kleeman is Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus and he is a star. His singing is beautiful; the voice of reason in Act I and the suffering husband at the end of Act II. He exudes star quality and we look forward to seeing a lot more of him on our stages here in Sydney. Nathan as Tarquinius was powerful and menacing and sang with determined power and beauty. He deftly managed the double-edged sword of the role, the sexually ravenous rapist with the sublimely beautiful musical line. His aria Within this frail crucible of light was a highlight of the evening.
As the Male Chorus, Andrew Goodwin, commands the stage. While not as large a voice as is often associated with this role, he sang with piercing clarity and authority. He has one of the most beautiful tenor voices around and he made excellent use of it. Celeste Lazarenko as the Female Chorus was just as wonderful. From the soft pathos filled moments to the dramatic outbursts her use of the text imbued everything she did with deep meaning.
Simon Lobelson was masterful as the jealous and raging Junius. His wonderful baritone voice had everything and more that could be needed in the role. Rugged and masculine yet his hurt at being betrayed by his wife’s infidelity is so palpable in his anguished moments. Jane Sheldon sang the high lying role of Lucia with technical precision. As the aged nurse Bianca, Jessica O’Donoghue sang wonderfully throughout.
Many find The Rape of Lucretia a difficult work to stage, including Kip Williams, the director. Williams has directed some extraordinary productions for Sydney Chamber Opera, foremost among them The Lighthouse. But struggling to find a way to make Britten’s opera conform to contemporary societal attitudes, the production was developed around reversing the male and female roles. This is done with a mouthing and doubling device in which the singers placed around those singers who are not in the scene, acting the roles and mouthing the text. If this sounds confusing and distracting, it is. The idea is novel and might have been effective if used in moderation but it is overdone. It is only three quarters of the way through that the singers get to portray the roles they are singing. The mouthing and doubling device does pay off in the rape scene in Act II, but it does distance the action from the audience and it leans to something like a puppet play. Doing double duty, particular kudos goes to Jessica O’Donoghue who portrays the menacing Tarquinius and Jeremy Kleeman the chaste Lucretia. Both were stunningly able to embody the roles of other singers. Jane Sheldon’s performance as the pained Junius was also very well realised. The entire cast has considerable acting chops and commitment to make this directorial conceit work as well as it does. It is a great disappointment that the production team could not simply let these extraordinary singers let the work speak for itself. When the singers finally get to portray the roles they are singing, the performances are extraordinary. Lucretia’s suicide scene is searing and raw, both Anna Dowsley and Jeremy Kleeman are outstanding.
In attempting to tackle the overt Christian symbolism in the libretto, Kip Williams has pushed the work out of shape and uses the finale as an attempt to indict the Christian church. As with his other directorial touches, this feels like a step too far and by pushing his message he attempts to answer the open questions that Britten left inherent in the work. This completely subverts the composer’s intentions. Rather than letting the audience make up its own minds and think through the unsettling issues of brutality, jealousy, suffering and purity, Kip Williams has tried to enforce his own opinions on to the opera and the production perhaps suffers from this heavy-handed approach.
The set, a stark white amphitheatre, designed by David Fleischer, and the costumes, by Elizabeth Gadsby, work well within the concept and are effective at keeping the focus squarely on the story being told. Key elements of the costumes like Lucretia’s dress, Tarquinius’ crown, Collatinus’ cloak and Junius’ armour are passed between the singers singing the role and the singers acting the role, which does help with identifying who is singing and who is portraying which role.
The Rape of Lucretia will never be Britten’s most popular opera, but it is an extraordinary piece of operatic theatre. We are indeed lucky that Sydney Chamber Opera and Victorian Opera, in this co- production, have taken on the work and brought it to our stage with such a stellar cast. Musically this has been spectacularly realised. Get your tickets while you can, the remaining Sydney performances are almost sold out and you don’t want to be waiting another 36 years for a chance to hear this work. You may never have the opportunity to hear a better cast than this.
Sydney Chamber Opera’s season of The Rape of Lucretia continues at Carriageworks at 8pm on Thurs 24, Fri 25 and Sat 26 August 2017
Deen Hamaker is a passionate opera aficionado and commentator. Introduced to theatre, opera and classical music at a very young age, he has acted in and directed several theatre productions, both in Australia and overseas. Deen lived in Japan for several years and studied the performing arts of Asia. Deen’s particular passion is opera, particularly the Russian, French and Modern repertoire. Deen was a contributing author for “Great, Grand and Famous Opera Houses”, 2012. Fluent in Japanese, Deen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from Griffith University and currently lives in Sydney.