Anna Theodosakis’ production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia for MYOpera updates the piece from proto-historical Rome to somewhere in the mid 20th century which is fine but doesn’t seem, of itself, to add any layers of meaning to the narrative. There are neat visual touches in a simple but effective set design and the nature of and relationships between the characters are deftly drawn. The rape scene manages to be disturbing without being gratuitously graphic. It’s skilful theatre. But is that enough?
It’s also extremely well acted and sung. It’s almost invidious to single out performances because the overall standard was so high but, I suppose, pride of place must go to Christina Campsall’s Lucretia. The role sits pretty low. It was written for Kathleen Ferrier after all and it really suits Campsall’s dark lower register. She also invested the part with real intensity. It’s not easy to make a character whose only claim to fame is “virtue” come alive but she did. Daevyd Pepper’s Male Chorus was the other really interesting character. The MC really is a sanctimonious prig and Daevyd got past this by playing him in a curiously deadpan way; careful, limited movements and the schoolmasterish diction that characterised the role’s creator. Very mature for a young singer.
The rest of the gentlemen; the military trio of ambitious Junius (Evan Korbut), ambiguous Collatinus (Jacob Feldman) and dastardly Tarquinius (Nicholas Borg) worked together well and the last quite convincingly played the villain as impetuous and entitled rather than truly evil. The ladies were just as good. Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus was a good foil for her male counterpart. (It’s another structural problem with the piece that, although they are presented as yang and yin, it’s very much a case of the Big Yang). Victoria Marshall was entirely convincing as the older, wiser, servant Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh rounded out the barren/fruitful/virginal presentation of female nature.
Natasha Fransblow accompanied from the piano using, I think, her own arrangement. For this was no mere piano reduction but a skilful use of all the sonic resources of the instrument to get as close as possible to the sound of Britten’s original chamber ensemble. It was extremely effective.
So, this was Britten’s Rape of Lucretia presented about as well as it could have been in the circumstances with singing and acting of a level of skill and maturity that does enormous credit to a young cast. But it did it really do anything to justify presenting a libretto which, on the face of it, is trite, misogynistic and offers no choice between Charles Jennen’s style religiosity or sheer nihilism? Let’s look at that.
Central to the piece is the rape of a virtuous woman. There’s no attempt to make her complicit. It’s an act of violence perpetrated by a member of the ruling class with previous form. The males react with either detached bewilderment (her husband) or political opportunism (Junius). Lucretia reacts by killing herself because, obviously, a raped woman is impure and an impure woman, obviously, is worthless. The Taliban or a Mississippi senator couldn’t be clearer. How does the librettist handle this? Frankly with crude religiosity. He sets up a concluding dialogue between the Female and Male Chorus. She asks:
Is it all?
Is all this suffering and pain…
is this in vain?
It goes on for a while but eventually the answer comes back from the Male Chorus who, being Male, is the ultimate source of authority:
It is not all.
It is not all.
Though our nature’s still as frail and we still fall,
and that great crowd’s no less along that road,
endless and uphill;
for now, He bears our sin and does not fall.
And He, carrying all, turns around,
stoned with our doubt,
and then forgives us all.
For us did He live with such humility.
For us did He die that we might live,
and He forgives the wounds that we make
and the scars that we are.
In His Passion, He is our hope,
Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
He is all.
He is all.
Note the capitalisation of “He”. Not only must meaning be defined in divine terms but in male divine terms.
I suppose this works if one happens to buy into that version of patriarchal Christianity (although even then it’s a bit of a cop out) but, if not, one exits the theatre with the distinct feeling that one has just experienced Nihilist Night at the Opera. And that’s the problem for any director because shorn of the religious element the piece is just another shabby little shocker, albeit with great music, and the decision to perform it is a problematic one. Is there something redeeming (sorry), which no director yet seems to have found? I doubt it and, if Anna Theodosakis thought she had found it, it completely escaped this reviewer last night. What I saw was a skilful but essentially unquestioning presentation of the piece.
It is not enough.
MYOpera’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia plays in the Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum. There is one more performance this afternoon at 2.30pm.
Photo credits: William Ford.