“Now I see why you insisted on making them Christian,” Benjamin Britten told his librettist Ronald Duncan, who suggested a final Christian interpretation by the Choruses in The Rape of Lucretia, so that musically the piece would not end with Lucretia’s death. “It gives them a definite point of view from which they can objectify the pagan tragedy.”

Britten’s eight-hand chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, written a year after the success of his 1945 hit Peter Grimes, retells the Lucretia myth with the work framed and narrated by one male and one female ‘Chorus’, who describe the action in the style of a Greek chorus, bring a 20th-century Christian perspective – and redemptive ending – to the story.

rape of lucretia, sydney chamber operaNathan Lay, Jessica O’Donoghue, Andrew Goodwin in Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia. Photos © Zan Wimberley.

In director Kip Williams’ production for Sydney Chamber Opera (a co-production with Victorian Opera), however, an additional level of framing is added, creating a contemporary telling of the story by stripping back the trappings of the theatre to draw attention to ideas of gender, performance and costume.

David Fleischer’s set is a stark white amphitheatre, against which the players – dressed in nondescript colours and theatre workshop tracksuits – don simple yet effective symbols in associate director Elizabeth Gadsby’s utilitarian costuming: a laurel crown for Etruscan Prince Tarquinius, a breastplate and cloak for Roman generals Junius and Collatinus respectively.

The opera’s plot is simple, if brutal: Tarquinius, Junius and Collatinus, in a soldiers’ camp outside Rome, are drinking and discussing the recently discovered infidelity of their wives – with the exception of Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife, who longs only for the return of her husband. Jealous and goaded by Junius, Tarquinius rides to Rome to ‘test’ Lucretia’s fidelity, ultimately raping her. The next morning, traumatised and filled with feelings of shame and guilt, Lucretia kills herself and Junius seizes on this event as the catalyst for the Romans to rise up against Etruscan rule.

But set and costumes aren’t the only story-telling illusions that Williams’ pulls apart in this production. In the first scene the men (sung by baritones Nathan Lay and Simon Lobelson, and bass Jeremy Kleeman) are acted by the women (mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley and sopranos Jane Sheldon and Jessica O’Donoghue). Then in the second scene, Lucretia’s house, this arrangement is reversed, with the men lip-syncing the women’s parts.

rape of lucretia, sydney chamber operaJane Sheldon, Jessica O’Donoghue, Nathan Lay and Anna Dowsley.

While this doubling – which has two actors on stage for every one character – illuminates elements of gender and performance, overall it leaves the drama feeling fragmented and confused, particularly in the exposition. Some aspects are effective, though, and the conceit allows for interesting dramatic moments – for instance, Dowsley, as Lucretia’s voice, physically comes between her body (Kleeman) and her attacker, and the bodies of those singing the voices become physical amplifiers of the emotion on stage.

The first act also becomes a primer for Williams’ ideas in the second, the audience’s attention having been drawn to a few simple symbols of rank, gender, societal role etc., before a proliferation of symbolism washes over the stage in the second act, Williams undercutting the Christian redemption promised in the epilogue. And there is some power to the moment when Dowsley moves from being Lucretia’s voice to inhabiting the role physically. But in most cases the drama remains unfocused, dispersed across players and stage: Dowsley is such a potent vocal presence that she commands more attention than the lip-syncing Kleeman, when he is ‘playing’ Lucretia.

Ultimately it is Britten’s music that holds everything together, from the crystalline harp notes of the nocturnal opening scene, to the rushing water music that engulfs Tarquinius’ horse in the interlude and the alto flute and bass clarinet lullaby of Lucretia’s slumber. The 12-piece ensemble led by SCO Artistic Director Jack Symonds is excellent, the music taut from beginning to end, colourfully painting in the details that the staging omits.

rape of lucretia, sydney chamber operaAndrew Goodwin

Tenor Andrew Goodwin brings a vibrant athleticism and definition to the Male Chorus, his Tarquinius does not wait – the high-energy narration of the prince’s hell-for-leather ride to Rome – is a highlight of the opera, Goodwin straddling a chair as the music propels him forward. His opposite number, soprano Celeste Lazarenko, is clear-toned as the Female Chorus, her final lines delivered with particular poignance, highlighting a more existential interpretation of events.

Sheldon and O’Donoghue make for a fierce Junius and predatory Tarquinius respectively, though Sheldon felt pushed to the upper limits of her register at times singing Lucia on opening night. The second scene quartet of Female Chorus, Lucia, Bianca (O’Donoghue) and Lucretia is a pleasure, with Lazarenko soaring above the group. (The gender swap also draws attention to the fact that the supporting female characters – Bianca and Lucia – are less fleshed out than the males.)

Lobelson brings a ringing tone to Junius, though his low register doesn’t always carry, while Lay’s smooth-edged baritone is brought to bear on Tarquinius, his sound blooming with menace in the second act.

Kleeman is compelling as Collatinus, his rich tone a pleasure, and, decked out in the symbolic Collatinus cloak he brings enough gravity to his second act with Dowsley that the audience forgets – almost – that he’s mysteriously not wearing any trousers.

But it is Dowsley who is the star. Her warm timbred mezzo unfurling with astonishing power throughout, and she brings an incredibly level of detail and resonance to her final scenes, her and Kleeman re-establishing a sense of character that was lost in the fracturing of the first act.

While Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia explores some fascinating ideas, the thorough deconstruction it undergoes in this iteration largely serves to create a disconnect between the story and audience, and it feels like a missed opportunity to delve more deeply into character and motivation – however uncomfortable that might be.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia is at Carriageworks until August 26.


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