Tiroler Landestheater 2021-21 Review: The Rape of Lucretia

Reitmeier Points A Finger At Society

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Birgit Gufler)

Director Johannes Reitmeier brought the Tiroler Landestheater’s production of Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” to close with a question.

“How was it possible?” was projected across the stage in large letters. Not only did this immediately encourage the audience to reflect on what they had witnessed and to attempt an answer, but it is also a question that cut to the heart of the work itself. Britten’s operas rarely present human actions in an unambiguous fashion; rather he and his librettists often hint at a variety of conflicting or hidden motives and underlying causes which the audience is then free to engage with and give meaning to.

“The Rape of Lucretia” fits neatly into this mould.

It is possible, of course, that Tarquinius rapes Lucretia because of a lust he does not wish to control. Ronald Duncan’s libretto and Britten’s music, however, suggest otherwise and point to a range of other factors lurking at a deeper level that allow for a variety of more nuanced interpretations, ranging from the psychological and the societal, to the inherent nature of Man himself and his need to defile beauty and corrupt innocence.

Reitmeier’s Strong Direction

Reitmeier, however, decided to center his presentation as a response to the current furore caused by the revelations surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s catalogue of sexual abuse and the development of the #Metoo movement. It was not, however, a glib or hackneyed reading, and rightly did not make any direct references to the events. Rather this was a presentation which on the surface was fairly traditional, into which Reitmeier threads subtle, recognizable, modern-day references to Tarquinius’ moral weakness and his abuse of power, a power which was given to him by society and which he uses to rape Lucretia.

The Act one interlude of Tarquinius’ horse ride to Lucretia’s house, for example, was presented as a video in which a confident, cool Tarquinius with Hollywood good looks cruises the open road on his motorbike, a là James Dean, looking every inch a man certain of the outcome.

Moreover, Reitmeier points a finger of blame at society. Tarquinius is society’s creation! The rape happens in the context of a war, in which male aggression is encouraged, but difficult to control. Reitmeier presented this aspect from many angles, including a video of the graves of dead soldiers projected onto a curtain front of stage. However, it was most effectively conveyed by his excellent direction of Tarquinius as a man who is clearly too easily manipulated by Junius, a man who embodies society’s base values. Later on, we watch as the male chorus eggs him on with knowing looks. Tarquinius is a weak man: he is a drunk, a philanderer, a braggart, with criminal desires, and the power to act upon them.

But what of Lucretia’s role? Are our conceptions of “good” and “evil” more fluid than we care to admit? Is Tarquinius wholly bad and Lucretia wholly good, or is there a repressed desire within Lucretia to which Tarquinius is unconsciously responding? Certainly, Duncan’s libretto appears to empathize with Tarquinius’ position, although this is undoubtedly counterbalanced by Britten’s music which sympathises with Lucretia.

Reitmeier leaves the door open on this issue. His presentation of Tarquinius is certainly a negative one we cannot sympathize with, but his depiction of Lucretia is not completely without ambivalence. For Tarquinius’ arrival in the second scene of Act one, Reitmeier creates a complex web of sexual tension in which Lucretia is fully involved. While Lucia, the maid, deliberately keeps her distance, and Bianca, a nurse, is clearly sexually excited by his presence, Lucretia is put into a state of anxiety; she knows exactly why Tarquinius has come to her house. Moreover, while the servants are dressed in plain clothes, Lucretia is dressed slightly more alluringly. Is this merely accidental, or does Reitmeier want the audience to consider the possibility that Lucretia is involved at a deep psychological level? Or is he being provocative, trying to confront the audience with their own prejudices?

The staging and costumes were designed by Michael D. Zimmermann, who did a fine job. His contrasting of the male and female worlds was skillfully managed: the male world of Act one, scene one, was set in an upmarket nightclub bar, in which Tarquinius and his men fraternized and drank to excess, whilst the female world in scene two was set in a fashionable, high-income town house. The men were costumed in present-day combat uniforms and the women were attired with fashionable formal and informal clothes. It all came together well, with the stark differences in their environments and clothing magnifying the male-female divide.

Reitmeier and his team can very pleased with the result. It is not an easy opera to engage with, dealing as it does with a very sensitive issue, yet what emerged was an insightful, honest reading which successfully explored some of the complex themes and ambiguities it contains. And although it was certainly a response to recent events, it did not superimpose a heavy-handed reading onto the work, but only as a means of linking it subtly to our present-day concerns. One problematic aspect of the work is its use of Christian imagery which also acts as a framing device. Reitmeier, probably quite rightly, decided to sidestep the issue; there were no Christian symbols and ideas (such as the redeeming quality of Lucretia’s blood) were skated over. It is an issue that does not sit easily with modern-day audiences, and an extensive exploration of it would have likely ended up going nowhere.

The musical side of the production was in the hands of Kerem Hasan who produced a dramatically strong reading from the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck, in which he successfully captured the work’s contrasting musical moods. Particularly satisfying, however, was the attention he gave to the balance between individual instruments within the orchestra. Not only did this allow individual contributions to be clearly perceived, but it also allowed Britten’s complex musical tapestry to be appreciated. A pleasing balance was also maintained with the stage.

The Choruses

The opera uses a male and female chorus, which comprises only a single voice for each; a tenor played by Dale Albright and a soprano played by Jennifer Maines. Their roles are as in Greek theatre: narrating and commenting on the drama, and providing its moral framework.

However, in what was a cleverly thought through and well-crafted idea, Reitmeier decided to further integrate the choruses into the fabric of the drama by having them play more active parts, such as waiters in the bar, or as reporters on the trail of a scoop, sneaking around Lucretia’s property, so that there was always a reason for their presence and their candid observations.

Maines and Albright made an excellent pairing, complementing and interacting with each other skillfully in what were two confident, secure acting performances.

Vocally Maines was impressive. Possessing a strong, well-supported soprano, she essayed the role with a considerable degree of expressivity, bringing depth and nuance to her characterisation.

Albright gave a slightly more problematic performance. On the positive side, he has a good presence, he knows exactly how to turn a phrase to good effect and his voice has a pleasing timbre. Unfortunately, the voice is starting to display the wearing of time; outside his comfort zone, the voice quickly becomes somewhat threadbare and lacking in sufficient ballast. He certainly managed to sing with a great deal of expressivity, but too often his weaknesses were suddenly exposed.

The Male World

Act one opens with the three male characters drinking in a bar. It was a cleverly rendered scene in which the camaraderie and the competitive and aggressive nature of a man’s world were established, allowing the necessary dynamics to develop that precipitated Tarquinius’ decision to try his luck with Lucretia.

Alec Avedissian was cast in the role of Tarquinius, and made an excellent impression indeed. He created a multi-faceted portrait of a prince who was willful, egotistical and morally flawed, yet with a superficial charm. During the infamous scene, he moved with ease from being a charming seducer to a brutal thug, clearly highlighting his view of Lucretia as an object to be taken, rather than a free person with the right to refuse him. It was a powerful scene in which Avedissian, along with Irina Maltseva as Lucretia, produced a charged picture; her pain and utter terror contrasted with his swaggering contempt. Avedissian’s voice was perfectly suited to the role in which the sweet, casual lyrical quality of his baritone contrasted wonderfully with passages in which the voice became aggressive, vicious and argumentative. His performance was also notable for his clear English pronunciation.

Bass Unnsteinn Árnason brought the unlikeable Junius alive with a superbly detailed and convincing performance, in which he took every opportunity to highlight his repellent nature; he was positively delighted by Lucretia’s rape and Collatinus’ pain. He possesses a strong, colorful, and appealing singing voice, which he employed with a high degree of expressivity.

Lucretia’s husband Collatinus was played by bass Johannes Maria Wimmer. A stalwart of the company, Wimmer consistently produces well-wrought performances, and whereas he was convincing in Act one, his reaction to Lucretia’s tragedy in the second Act relied too heavily on stock gestures and made his reaction appear mannered and superficial. Vocally he was strong throughout.

The Female World

The female world was equally well established with the three women closeted away in a comfortable environment. Their relatively soft lifestyles made the arrival of Tarquinius all the more threatening and created an uneasy tension.

Irina Maltseva’s Lucretia was not a portrayal of an ideal, but rather of a normal, albeit privileged, woman, married and with a good home. The arrival of Tarquinius made her uncomfortable; she was not a naïve innocent by any means. It was a performance to which she brought layers of emotional expression; she was uneasy, she was terrified and combative, hysterical and reflective, suffered shame and misplaced guilt, yet it was all perfectly placed and never descended into cliché. Maltseva’s has a flexible, colorful mezzo-soprano with bright piercing top notes and is secure under pressure, all of which made her well-suited to the role.

The scene in which Lucretia relates the events of the night before to her husband, beginning “To love as we loved” was particularly strong; weaving subtly and carefully crafted phrases Maltseva captured her deep sadness and disembodied state perfectly as she reflected on her love for Collatinus and her shame of being abused.

Lucretia’s maid Bianca was played by mezzo-soprano Camilla Lehmeier. She is an excellent singing actress who made the most of what is a minor role, clothing it with real depth. She has a well-supported voice with a rich colorful palette, which she used with intelligence and versatility to develop her character as an aware, formal, yet emotionally-tied and loyal servant to Lucretia.

A relative newcomer to the Tiroler Landestheater company, Annina Wachter, was parted as the nurse. She has a clear, attractive soprano that lies nicely on the ear, and performed the role successfully. It should be interesting to see her take on bigger roles in the future.

Overall, the Tiroler Landestheater’s production of “The Rape of Lucretia” was a definite success. In deciding not to attempt a detailed consideration of all the possible causes which lay behind Lucretia’s rape, Reitmeier managed to create a streamlined narrative, one which was easy for the audience to engage with, yet one which also challenged it to think about the deeper causes involved, by weaving in wider references and ambiguities. Added to Hasan’s fine musical direction and the cast’s strong performance it made for an absorbing piece of theatre.


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