Rembrandt, Lucretia. 1664. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
“The other striking change is the inclusion of a Christian element. The conclusion [seemed to say] that after the coming of Christ the true tragedy of the story could no longer be relevant, because of the forgiveness and redemption available to the Christian world. This was apparently added at the request of Britten.”
A Christian Lucretia? U of I’s Production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia
English opera began with chamber operas on Roman-inspired subjects, John Blow’s Ve- nus and Adonis (c.1683) based on Ovidian themes, and Henry Purcell’s more famous Dido and Aeneas (1689), loosely adapted from the material of Vergil’s Aeneid Book IV. Ben- jamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia follows in this tradition, scored for eight singers and a chamber orchestra, and consisting of two acts that take an hour and a half or so to perform. It premiered at Glyndebourne in July of 1946.
Like its earliest English predecessors, it stands at several stages of removal from the ancient source, which in his case is of course Livy’s report of the rape of Lucretia, the ex- pulsion of the Tarquins, and the founding of the Roman republic. The libretto by Ronald Duncan is based on a 1931 French play by André Obey, Le viol de Lucrèce. Its depend- ence on a chorus of two singers, a tenor and soprano, for background and comment gives the piece a narrative rather than strictly dra- matic quality. This is partly a result of Obey’s dependence on Shakespeare’s narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, which in turn owes as much to Ovid’s account in Fasti (II.685-862) as to Livy’s prose narrative.
The story is essentially the same as that in the ancient sources. The young Roman, nobil- ity, up too late and drinking too much, talk about their wives, on whom they had paid un- expected visits the night before. Only Lu- cretia, the wife of Collatinus is virtuous and chaste. Aroused by this claim, Tarquinius rides back to Rome, is received as a guest by Lu- cretia, and later that night he rapes her. The next morning Lucretia summons her husband, receives his forgiveness, but stabs herself to death in shame. The opera does not address the political events these events are supposed to have precipitated.
The Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theater at the University of Iowa produced The Rape of Lucretia April 1-3. The production was di- rected by Gary Race, with stage and costume designs by Margaret Wenk, lighting by Laurel Shoemaker, and music direction by William LaRue Jones. The production partnered with the Rape Victim Advocacy Program for the event: audience members passed through the Clothesline Project in the lobby of Clapp Re- cital Hall as they entered the theater. The Clothesline Project is a series of t-shirts repre- senting real women and girls who have been abused, raped and sometimes murdered. Re-
cordings of whistles and tolling bells indicate the frequency with which such awful events take place. It was a sobering reminder of the seriousness of the subject matter.
Two aspects of this libretto struck me par- ticularly. The first was that although the cho- rus members explain that the Tarquins are ty- rants and treat Rome like their whore, Britten’s Tarquinius does not initially conceive of the plan to violate Lucretia on his own. Instead, Junius (a.k.a. Lucius Junius Brutus) provokes him to the act out of jealousy that his own wife was caught in adultery, and perceiving that Collatinus may be besting him the political arena. Eventually, Tarquinius’ own lust takes over (“When Tarquin desires then Tarquin will dare”) but we see a more complex figure as in Shakespeare, rather than the villain of the Ro- man sources.
The other striking change is the inclusion of a Christian element in the presentation of the story by the chorus. The male chorus and the female chorus, one person comprising each, participate in and stand outside of the action. In the prologue, in the interlude at the end of Act II, scene 1, and in the epilogue, the choruses place the action of 510 BCE in the context the life, death, and finally the resurrec- tion of Christ. The conclusion, if I understood it correctly, was that after the coming of Christ the true tragedy of the story could no longer be relevant, because of the forgiveness and re- demption available to the Christian world. This was apparently an element added at the request of Britten, who felt that the some kind of resolving epilogue was needed to make the music seem complete.
The University of Iowa production was well-directed and good to look at. As always Margaret Wenk’s sets and costumes were ef- fective without being intrusive, in this case vaguely upsetting without upstaging the actors and music. The colors were ochres and black; the singers moved on raked platforms. The back wall was decorated in a subtle rectilinear pattern that broke down as it approached an off-center, angular opening. Gary Race’s di- rection made the action move smoothly and effectively in cooperation with the music, building to the disturbingly vivid rape and the traumatic denouement.
Britten’s music is not harshly modern, but a mix of effective dissonances with some hauntingly lyrical passages. The singers were
(Continued on page 3)