Even in Benjamin Britten’s day, his operatic treatment of Livy’s reported act of Etruscan on Roman violence raised eyebrows.

You can’t put that on stage, is probably the response I get most often whenever a new Sydney Chamber Opera production is announced. Practically every project we’ve done has been branded ‘unstageable’ before we start to stage it. Somehow, with the right range of collaborators and imaginative vision the pieces prove themselves more than worthy of being performed, and a provocation to the discourse surrounding opera’s so-called canon. Not least of which was our Australian premiere production of Benjamin Britten’s late, difficult Owen Wingrave in 2013. The opera’s negative reception worldwide was an incentive to try and tackle it and finally turn it into a success. I believe we achieved that, and I immediately began to think of when, who and how to overcome Britten’s equally problematic The Rape of Lucretia.

This chamber opera – perhaps the first work worthy of inclusion in the ‘chamber opera’ genre – follows directly on the heels of Peter Grimes, a successful opera if ever there was one. But what a universe of difference between the two, separated by only a year of composition. For every sure-fire emotive, Verdian stage trick in Grimes there is a searching, complex and modern parallel in Lucretia that seems to fly in the face of what makes a ‘great’ opera. In place of Grimes’ near-perfect orchestral, choral and solo tapestry woven from Grand Opera’s history, Lucretia proposes a chamber ensemble of 13 solo instruments and eight singers, which constantly blurs the boundaries between chorus, narration, solo, recitative, aria and scena.

Its dramaturgy and libretto are downright strange: why did Britten care about this story of Roman sex and politics and, even more worryingly, why did he insist on it being framed with two narrator characters (‘Male Chorus’ and ‘Female Chorus’) who apply a thick, old-fashioned coat of Christian judgement to the whole story? It seems set up for failure. Even Owen Wingrave, the most reviled of all the Britten operas, is a relatively conventional drama with a backdrop of pacifism and set in an English country house; surely something Britten could relate to and write ‘what he knew’.

Britten’s depictions of women and gender have come under fire since his death in 1976

Britten’s depictions of women and gender have come under fire since his death in 1976 for being unsympathetic, hysterical and outdated. Lucretia and Gloriana are his only major works centred on women in an otherwise long list (The Turn of the Screw can rightly be said to be deeply and wonderfully ambiguous about where the emotional focus lies and Phaedra is a concentrated, late exception). Lucretia herself seems a straightforward innocent, defiled by lust and possession and responding with hopeless suicide. However, Britten gives her a final scene of such searching nobility that she is brought startlingly into three-dimensions and the time the audience spends with her is rewarded with wrenching honesty and expression. Lucretia’s final decision is composed with the same profound insight as the great scenes given to Grimes, Captain Vere and Aschenbach.

A work such as Lucretia needs a tough interrogation if it is to speak to 21st-century audiences, and without giving away what we have planned, I am confident that director Kip Williams’ production has the potential to devastatingly and radically show why we should care about this story, now. The piece has an unfortunate title, but is not really a ‘rape piece’. In some of Britten’s most audaciously inventive and complex music, it exposes the problems of applying Christian judgement to issues of gender politics and marriage. I find it endlessly fascinating that Britten should insist on this Christian viewpoint against the advice of his collaborators, yet instead of a beatific halo he provides Male and Female Chorus with the most questioning and pained music in the piece.

The incongruity between the sanctimonious couplets of Ronald Duncan’s somewhat purple libretto and its razor-sharp realisation in sound is a gift for a director like Kip, who has built a relationship with SCO over four previous productions. It isn’t an easy work, but its implicit challenge to interpreters and audience justify it being performed if its modernity, vision and subject matter can be sharply focussed on the 21st century.

Sydney Chamber Opera and Victorian Opera present The Rape of Lucretia at Carriageworks, Sydney from August 19 – 26