The Rape of Lucretia

Review at Boston Lyric Opera

By: - Mar 16, 2019

Boston Lyric Opera’s production and interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s contemporary tragic opera “The Rape of Lucretia” is once again an example of a willingness and commitment to perform dramatically intense and socially relevant subject matter. There are certainly contemporary social and political parallels to be drawn without much imagination. BLO succeeds with strong casting, a poignant and powerful musical score and a re-telling of a familiar tale from the interpretation of a female stage director, Sarna Lapine.

The opera is considered among composer Britten’s most skillful, concentrated and theatrical work. In the storyline and theme, the act of rape rears its ugly head.  BLO’s “Lucretia” explores the brutal nature of political and sexual power without blinking. Lucretia’s trauma is cast as an act of violence she turns on herself. She makes public what Tarquinius (the Etruscan king’s corrupt and ambitious son) and his act of violation, has cost her. Taking on the age-old face of tyranny, Lapine directs an un-swerving impact with a minimal and intimate center stage, There are few props or physical borders to separate the small audience’s seating from the emotional events occurring on stage.  

The story is set in ancient Rome, under the ruthless rule of the Etruscan king’s son Tarquinius who is to lead a joint army into battle against Greece. Aroused by the unimpeachable virtue of Lucretia (the wife of his Roman general Collatinus) he rides back to the city and attempts to seduce her. When she rejects him, he rapes her. The next morning, she calls back her husband Collantinus, to witness her testimony and, in his presence, commits suicide. 

Britten wrote this opera just after WWII, after having given two concerts at the recently liberated concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. With a majority of productions of the opera being directed by men, stage director Sarna Lapine delivers an interpretation that is more gender-based. The audience is asked  more to judge the reasoning of the female character of Lucretia, choosing to kill herself. As Lapine speaks to this issue she expresses the many traditional explanations, “Did she believe it would free her husband from the stigma of shame? Was it an attempt to restore her purity.” Instead, with Lapine’s superb targeted direction, we see a Lucretia (played with an incredible transition of human emotion by Kelly O’Connor) that is instead a much more defiant women in control of her emotions though violated.

The entire cast is superb in delivering their characters, fully exposed with an almost bare circular stage. In addition, there is raw power of male baritones(Duncan Rock, Brandon Cedel and David McFerrin) and tenor (Jesse Darden), while the female cast of mezzo-soprano (Margaret Lattimore) and sopranos (Kelly O’Connor, Antonia Tamer and Sara Womble) steal some scenes with exquisite range and simply the beauty of voice. 

For the lead characters there is also an intense presence for each role played. Lucretia’s husband, Collantinus (Brandon Cedel) exudes honesty, loyalty and a forthright manner. A partnered general Junius Brutus (David McFerrin)) serves as an enraged foil, having found a test of infidelity was only passed by Collantius’ wife, Lucretia – from the previous night. Both Darden (as Brutus) and Rock (as Tarquinius) deliver gritty combativeness. They target each other with insults and abuse in the Act I, only to be controlled from fighting by the eloquence of Cedel’s Collantinus, He nobly asks them to save their strength for the battle ahead against the Greeks. 

Duncan Rock, who plays Tarquinius, is physically enormous and equally menacing in this primal evil role, taking full advantage of his strength and size to own the stage. With Brutus’ goad to Tarquinius, in a very drunken brutal performance, the audience can readily sense the belligerence that will confront Lucretia at her home. Sending that message, Rock’s ruthless Tarquinius is seen clearly as sexual predator in Act I,  and later after he arrives, by horseback, in Rome, in Act II. He storms into Collantius’ home to pursue his violent quest and  force himself upon Lucretia.

 Kelly O’Connor as Lucretia mimics the tranquility of her setting in Act I. Upon recognizing Tarquinius’ abrupt appearance and obsession in Act II, she still does not become hysterical but emboldened to reject him. After the rape, O’Connor’s Lucretia transforms from her violation, as a changed heroine. There is a clear sense of championing the decision to take her own life, as the portrayal of BLO’s Lucretia is to force consequences by her suicide. The rallying cry for Romans to charge against Etruscan rule is clearly delivered in Act III. An atmosphere is created by O’Connor’s soul-bearing performance of Lucretia and Cedel’s Collantinus in tormented pain and agony of loss. 

BLO’s conductor David Angus finds a Benjamin Britten score that “has already got there before us – his (Britten’s)timing and pacing…in every way Britten enhances and delivers the meaning of the text with wonderful understanding and precision.” The orchestra deftly handles a sparse but intense accompaniment, with subtle variations that link with high points of emotional scenes, Angus re-states the strength of the score, “If any music can communicate heartbreak, this is it.” The audience would certainly agree.