Sydney Chamber Opera present a new production of Benjamin Britten’s lyrical chamber opera, directed by Kip Williams and starring Opera Australia’s Anna Dowsley
Why is Benjamin Britten’s brilliant and innovative chamber opera of 1946 so rarely performed? In order of obviousness: the title, the subject, the story, and the religious spin he put on it.
The subject is the rape and subsequent suicide of Lucretia, the semi-legendary wife of Collatinus, a consul in the Roman republic in 509 BCE – a story that has been widely publicised by artists as eminent as Titian and Shakespeare. Ronald Duncan’s serviceable libretto has gathered fewer fans – it contains much to offend and bemuse audiences.
The first introductory words are sung by “Male Chorus” (the great Peter Pears at the premiere, here Andrew Goodwin), but the role is really more of a narrator than any chorus in ancient Greek melodrama. Then “Female Chorus” (Celeste Lazarenko) foreshadows a Christian interpretation of pagan crimes and politics, and by the epilogue they seem to reach consensus on this as a consolation for the (presumed Christian) audience, despite the problematic sin of suicide. The title character is little developed or explored beyond her central role of being a beautiful ideal chaste wife. Her suffering is ultimately presented less as an individual tragedy than a regrettably difficult theological problem.
No director could conceivably fix the structural problems of the libretto or deliver a satisfactory dramatic experience while keeping faithful to it and the score, so criticising directorial decisions here feels like back-seat driving a crash-test dummy.
Director Kip Williams and associate director and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby add an anti-realistic layer to the casting, by doubling the roles for the historical characters in gendered pairings (with one person singing them and another performing/lipsyncing, and flipping the genders partway through). For example, the rapist Tarquinius is sung by Nathan Lay but also lip-synced and mimed by Jessica O'Donoghue, in costume fit for the prince he is. During the rape scene Jeremy Kleeman (sporting a dress and a 5 o’clock shadow) mimes the victim Lucretia as she is sung by Anna Dowsley.The effect is distancing, and arguably it attenuates the audience’s emotional reaction to seeing the crime acted on stage. Is this effect intentional? Is the gender-reversal device desirable or necessary? Consistent or confusing?
Certainly it yields a magnificent acting performance from Jane Sheldon, depicting the jealous husband Junius in incandescent rage at the news of his wife’s infidelity. But there are costs: doubling the roles and swapping the genders complicates the audience’s interpretation of the story.
Musically, and in terms of its visual design, the production is unequivocally strong. All eight soloists are well cast and sing very, very well; this was showcased in a magnificent passage where they soar without the orchestra at one of the highest points of the drama. Throughout the rest of the work the instruments have been commenting on their actions and thoughts in thought-provoking ways; one particularly beautiful lament was played by Ben Opie on cor anglais. The dozen fine instrumentalists are conducted by SCO artistic director Jack Symonds, who is also the pianist.
The set designed by David Fleischer is a white stripped outdoor ancient Greek theatre of four rows. Visually, it works beautifully in various light settings deftly arranged by Damien Cooper – but because sound cannot travel directly from the orchestra (behind the top of the stage) to the first few rows of the audience, those seats are best avoided. (This is easy with general admission, a bargain at $35.)
This is a fine co-production by Sydney Chamber Opera and Victorian Opera, and even fans of Britten’s slightly earlier masterpiece Peter Grimes will be impressed by how unfamiliar and interesting and new the music seems. It’s a good reason for lovers of serious music to hold their noses and commit to an objectionable narrative as they listen and watch.The Rape of Lucretia merits this far more than Puccini’s Turandot, whose music is enjoyed by millions without a thought to its twisted gender politics.