Seventy years after its première at Glyndebourne, Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia is still deeply unsettling. Its small cast of eight singers and thirteen musicians places very little distance between the audience and the unfolding of Lucretia’s rape and subsequent suicide onstage. And unlike operas such as Das Rheingold where the idea of rape functions symbolically, the actuality of sexual assault tempered in some way by using it as a metaphor for the violation of nature and plundering of gold, in Lucretia the rape itself is unavoidable. The act of sexual assault is written into Ronald Duncan’s libretto, with the physical and musical drama entirely revolving around the central scene between Tarquinius and Lucretia.
Added to this, Britten’s music and Duncan’s libretto are deeply problematic. There are no clear-cut villains or heroes in their setting, and the women themselves are given very little agency in comparison to the highly individuated male roles. Difficult questions are raised throughout — Tarquinius is at least partly portrayed as a product of the homosocial structures that he is surrounded by, perhaps attempting to displace some blame from the individual to the social. Although Lucretia certainly does not “desire” her assault, she initially responds favourably to Tarquinius as she sleeps, dreaming of her husband Collatinus. Given prominent discussions about sexual consent, there seems to be no more timely context for staging this opera. Whether it’s at sexual consent workshops at universities, or over a ruling that the singer Kesha still has to work with a man claimed to have sexually assaulted her, the idea that “no means no” is now part of public discourse in the UK. “Rape culture” is still alarmingly present in many capacities, and Britten’s opera has something to contribute to this discourse.
But rape remains a difficult topic, and one that Oxford churches are, it seems, keen to distance themselves from. The production of Lucretia currently running at St Peter’s College in Oxford moved from its original venue at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, as it was deemed to be unsuitable subject matter for the church. Its final venue was permitted only if all publicity for the event omitted the word “chapel”. Another performance of the same opera was also rejected at Christ Church Cathedral in 2012 due to similar concerns. But Christianity is woven into the fabric of Britten’s Lucretia; the opera ends, ‘In His Passion, He is our hope, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. He is all. He is all.’ If the religion’s socio-cultural traction is to be understood and challenged, a heavy emphasis on chastity in some manifestations of Christianity, and the dichotomy between virgin and whore in the Old Testament surely need to be openly discussed. The Rape of Lucretia provides a platform for doing so, raising more questions than it gives answers, interrogating as much as it presents.
The chapel certainly highlighted the religious aspects of the text far better than a secular venue would have done, with the closing lines resonating around the space amidst images of Christ. The set design was simple and unobtrusive, making good use of the stage provided. Ollie Tobey’s subtle lighting design interacted with both the narration and real-time action to create a fluidity between the internal and external realms that the opera presents. Peter Thickett’s sensitive direction never bordered on the gratuitous or explicit. In some senses, this was both the production’s strength and its downfall. Although the disarmingly simple staging succeeded in throwing the music and text to the fore, it seemed to shy away from engaging with the problematic aspects within the score and script.
Take, for example, the sextet at the close of the first act. Tarquinius has just arrived at Lucretia’s house, and they bid goodnight to each other, alongside Lucretia’s nurse and maid. This is some of the most exquisite writing in the whole opera, a funereal lament that foreshadows the inevitable. It was a clear highlight in this production, sung by Johanna Harrison (Lucretia), Sian Millet (Bianca), Betty Makharinsky (Lucia), Ed Ballard (Tarquinius), Maximilian Lawrie (Male Chorus), and Elizabeth Nurse (Female Chorus). At present, it would be hard to find a more impressive group of singers within Oxford, and the voices were balanced here to perfection. It was without doubt one of the greatest assets of the production how well the cast worked together — no single voice stood out amongst the rest, yet each had a distinctive quality that created some captivating timbres in the ensemble pieces. The maturity of Harrison’s mezzo voice, mixed with the richness of Millet’s and fragility of Makharinsky’s soprano blended especially well, making their trios some of the most musically convincing of the opera.
But Britten’s setting here is representative of some of the issues of the opera more broadly. Throughout the whole sextet, Lucretia has only one short solo line. Despite the centrality of her character, she is given little agency, and has surprisingly few solo moments. As the only character to have a distinctive leitmotif associated with her name, her identity is fixed in a manner beyond her control. Similarly, her whole being is associated with the label of “chaste”. A key aspect of her selfhood is lost when she can no longer personify the idea of “pure love” that she and others associate with herself. Furthermore, when Lucia sings her goodnight, she is interrupted by the Male Chorus, who narrates Tarquinius’s actions. Musically, Tarquinius overpowers Lucia in the same way that he will later physically overpower Lucretia. While this could be put down to characterisation alone, it is a persistent problem that throughout the opera, the men are given more differentiated musical material than the women. Women are generalised by both text and score, and it is unclear whether Britten and Duncan are subscribing to gender stereotypes, or exposing them for critique. It all depends on the staging.
This is where Thickett’s direction seemed too cautious, presenting rather than probing the surface of the opera. The costume design had the men in black and the women in white with flowers in their hair, containing them within a shroud of untouchable innocence. While this is true to Britten’s fascination with the childlike, Lucretia does not have the same veneer of sexlessness that some of his other characters do. She is a desiring woman who is sexually associated with her husband — she just does not desire Tarquinius. The costumes seemed to respect the wholly “chaste” label that is bestowed upon her a little too readily. Likewise, in ‘Time treads upon the hands of women’, Lucia and Bianca are given the only textless music of the entire opera (sensitively rendered by Millet and Makharinsky). Such wordlessness in opera is associated with a lack of rationality, an inability to form coherent speech — as in, for example, the Queen of the Night’s aria ‘Die Hölle Rache’ from The Magic Flute — that is gendered distinctly feminine. But this was not highlighted here. Instead, the women quietly folded linen, inhabiting the gender identities that lead to Lucretia’s sexuality (or lack thereof) being pedestalised.
This aside, the opera was acted and sung superbly. Thomas Herring’s performance as Collatinus was heartfelt and sincere, with Salvador Mascarenhas and Ed Ballard astutely cast as the politically manipulative Junius, and vengeful and entitled Prince of Rome respectively. The three acted their roles to perfection, and their trios were some of the strongest theatrical moments of the production. There were some moments where the singers were overpowered by the orchestra — the most frustratingly during the rape scene and at the end, where the words are absolutely crucial — but for the most part the balance between singers and instrumentalists was well handled under the direction of Rory Green. Particularly impressive were Lawrie and Nurse as the choruses, who hold the opera together with their continual narration.
It is Lucretia‘s ambiguity that gives it its power as a platform for discussion and critique. Its blurred boundaries can speak powerfully to Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, forcing the audience to confront the potential consequences of a culture saturated with objectification, and a sympathy towards the idea that victims in some way “ask for” their abuse. The questions and assumptions that underpin this opera are surely ones that are deserving of discussion, whatever their venue. I hope that next time The Rape of Lucretia is staged in Oxford it will be in an environment that allows the production to take more risks, and explore the psychological heart of the opera.
‘The Rape of Lucretia’ runs at St Peter’s College until Saturday 5th March and is currently sold out. More information can be found on their Facebook page.