New Camerata Opera 2019 Review: The Rape of Lucretia
Bea Goodwin Emphasizes The Female Gaze In Troubling Britten operaBy David Salazar
The true tragedy of Benjamin Britten and Ronaldo Duncan’s “The Rape of Lucretia” is that its story, about a virtuous woman in Ancient Rome who is raped by a powerful man, continues to re-enact itself in the modern world.
What is arguably most complicated about the opera itself is that this tragedy is framed by the male gaze, which only serves to complicate some of the interchange between the male and female chorus as they comment and narrate many of the events of the story. The male gaze ultimately gets the first and last words of this story, the final phrases speaking of a Christian hope that rings hollower than ever for a modern audience that has seen such “true Christians” as Brett Kavanaugh take on positions of highest power.
For its production, New Camerata Opera gave directorial control to Bea Goodwin, and she made sure to address those concerns in her production, mainly sustaining the female perspective throughout the entire performance.
Her most important choice was the casting of Artistic Sign Language actor Amelia Hensley as one of two representations of Lucretia. While mezzo-soprano Allison Gish expresses Lucretia through the opera’s musical language and interacts directly with the other characters, Hensley is a shadow, an embodiment of Lucretia not only in this story, but in all other versions of this same transgression.
As the opera opens, she stands beside the Male and Female chorus, commenting as they do through sign language; she never leaves the stage and as such, we experience the opera through HER eyes and body language. While it was impossible to put all of the attention on her throughout the night, glimpses in her direction immediately brought you into the drama on an immediate level.
The opening scene between Junius, Collatinus, and Tarquinius suddenly takes on a far greater significance when Lucretia is allowed to react to it. This is a scene where Junius proclaims “Women are chaste, when they’re not tempted… Women are all whores by nature.” Having her in that moment makes the scene all the more difficult to watch. As the story developed and it seemed that Lucretia’s fate was unavoidable, Hensley’s signing displayed an increasing level of aggression. Her face was constantly in a state of revulsion, only to whittle and be consumed by increasing sadness at Lucretia’s fate.
When the Male chorus declared “He forgives the wounds that we make and the scars that we are,” she shrugged it off vehemently and stopped signing. The message was clear – no hope or faith can simply wipe away the evil that festers on, especially when many of the vilest perpetrators use that very faith as their fuel for more power. You can’t fabricate hope in a situation of such utter pain and suffering.
In terms of the men themselves, it was clear that this production was emphasizing the aggressiveness of their respective natures. As Junius, Collatinus, and Tarquinius parade onto the stage at the start of the opera, they hold up pointed drinking horns; Junius even holds it by his crotch, emphasizing the phallic imagery. The interpreters themselves only added to this vision. Scott Lindroth was a monstrous Junius, his baritone potent throughout with rarely any gentle gestures in his singing. His brief passage “Lucretia! I am sick of that name!” was harsh in its execution. He was ruthless throughout, and upon seeing Lucretia’s fate, all he could do was smugly smile. He was arguably the worst of the schemers, even if he himself did not act as the direct violator.
Or was it Tarquinius, the man who rapes Lucretia? Stan Lacy delivered an equally forceful portrayal of the spoiled prince, though there seemed to be a more manchildish attitude in his initial interactions. He boasted vociferously, his sound ringing in the theater, but he didn’t feel like a real threat. That is, until he gets the idea to go after Lucretia.
In one of the most complex moments of the entire staging, the Male chorus, performed by Erik Bagger, started to “whisper” into his ear “Tarquinius oes not date, when Tarquinius does not desire… Oh, go to bed, Tarquinius, Go to bed!” In the original context, one might see the Male chorus as the fates urging on the characters toward virtue. But here, Goodwin had Bagger act as a Satanic serpent goading him on. A similar staging was portrayed earlier with the Male Chorus and Junius, but what made this one all the more striking was that we saw Tarquinius’ emotions evolve from concern and confusion to confidence and finally, desire and drive; it all exploded with two shouts of “My horse!”
Of course, this adds a bit of complexity to the whole situation – is the fact that the Male chorus pushing Tarquinius to act a manifestation of the fate that all men are set to succumb to if predisposed? And if so, does that somehow take away some of Tarquinius’ agency and yet some of the guilt? The staging, especially as seen through Hensley’s portraying, certainly argues that Tarquinius and all the men are to blame for the situation, but this staging raises questions that complicates things a bit more.
Lacy’s aggression only grows all the more, even if his repeated calls for Lucretia to “wake up” were sung with soft tones. The urgency however carried over the volatily of his character and when she finally did awaken, Lacy’s violence only grew, climaxing in the rape.
As Collatinus, Andrew Dwan had arguably the most potent of all the male voices, his baritone ringing through the hall. He sang with excellent legato line throughout and had a gentle disposition in contrast to his two companions. That said, when he separated them from their fighting on “Peace! Peace! Save your swords for the Greeks,” his voice was a crushing hammer that suggested tremendous power and might. While Collatinus is framed as the noble husband, the opera’s libretto offers a rather conflictive set of lines near the end. “What Tarquinius has taken can be forgotten. What Lucretia has given can be forgiven,” he utters, suddenly finding his wife rejecting him. In fact, it is these words of completely incomprehension that motivate her to stab herself, making him also share in the guilt of the situation.
Tenor Erik Bagger also had a solid night, particularly on his punctuating high notes. He had a moment where he seemed to lose breath support, but on the whole his interpretation of the male chorus was one of the most complex realizations on the stage. He was a changeling, shifting from an objective observer to being very much an orchestrator of the men’s worst actions. The tenor shifted his voice from dark and powerful to slim and soft, adding to this snake-like nature.
Pain & Suffering
As Lucretia’s two servants Bianca and Lucia, Eva Parr and Barbara Porto performed admirably, singing and signing throughout the evening. Parr was particularly impressive, her mezzo solid and her diction crystal clear. Porto struggled in her high range as she sang her first lines, but warmed up to the high tessitura and managed the vocalize section a few pages later with fluid legato.
As the Female Chorus, Helena Brown gave a portrait of stability that counteracted Bagger’s portrayal. While his was deceptive, hers was transparent in her emotions. The soprano’s voice is a vibrant instrument that projects beautifully, but soars evenly throughout the register.
Then there was Allison Gish, who gave a knockout vocal performance of the title role. There was a gentle manner with her singing early on in the performance, even if she was sad over her separation from Collatinus. But the singing darkened as the character’s trauma took place. While she did kiss Tarquinius while asleep, she pushed him away aggressively the moment that she awoke and realized what had happened. From there, her voice expressed increased escalation as she repeatedly pushed him away. Her “No’s” that had a spoken quality and the latter “I refuse” were even more agitated, leaving no doubt that she wanted nothing from him. She tried to shake him off, only to find herself repeatedly thrown around until eventually finding herself completely overpowered.
The famed “If it were all a dream, then waking would be less of a nightmare” is one of the most devastating scenes in all of opera. While unfortunately it is framed as a mad scene by the composer and librettist, Goodwin directed it in a crude manner that allowed Gish to truly express the revulsion, anger, and horror that she was experiencing all at once. How Gish built from “Give him this orchid” to “Hurry, for all men love the chaste Lucretia” was chilling, each line spewed out with increased pointedness. Later, when she started “Flowers bring to every year the same perfection,” her sound was far softer and more gentle, giving a more internalized feel to the passaged. She made a gradual vocal crescendo all the way to the “Let their pureness show my grief to hide my shame and be my wreath,” allowing the pain to come to fore. Gish’s voice was colored by a rapid vibrato that added to the growing intensity of the moment.
Aggression & Bombast
In the pit, music director Justin Bischof led an aggressive account of the Britten score. The percussion blasted throughout the night, sometimes even overpowering the singers, and the rest of the group followed. One might call it bombastic at times, but it all worked in terms of creating a sense of discomfort for the listener. This was most noticeable when Tarquinius rides his horse on the way to seeing Lucretia. As staged, all the characters become Tarquinius’ horse with the two Lucretia’s at the center of it all. The metaphor might come off as on-the-nose a bit, but what makes it effective is how all the cast members acting as the horse are moving in sync with the percussion hits, adding to the overall sense of abuse and violence. In this way, we all are affected viscerally by the music in a visual and aural means.
The score always creates a general sense of unease, and this was particular clear through the rather prickly harp passages that litter the score. Often the instrument of celestial divinity, here it took on a sardonic and even sinister quality that agitated every time it appeared.
All in all, this was a gripping performance of “The Rape of Lucretia.” It’s not an opera you can enjoy, but it is one that will stick with you when the execution manages to navigate some of its more problematic aspects. Under Goodwin’s direction, New Camerata Opera’s rendition of the work does just that and more.