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Cold Comfort

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The Rape of Lucretia
Sydney Chamber Opera
24 August 2017
Carriageworks

There’s nothing like red on white. From the moment I saw the stark white amphitheatre I was waiting for the blood. And blood there was. Buckets of it.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s latest production is a taut and not entirely comfortable night in the theatre. The Rape of Lucretia, with music by Benjamin Britten and libretto by Ronald Duncan, is as stark as its immediate predecessor, Peter Grimes, is lush. The drama is remote, the score is spare and the message is difficult. The libretto’s verse is spookily pristine; the Male Chorus, who narrates, is impossible to read. SCO’s creative team, led by director Kip Williams and music director Jack Symonds, grapple with the complexities of this obstinate masterpiece to produce a thrilling but problematic piece of theatre.

The thrills – and problems – begin with Williams’ bold concept of taking each of the six Roman characters and fracturing it into multiple elements. Thus the three warriors, Tarquinius, Collatinus and Junius, are voiced by Nathan Lay, Jeremy Kleeman and Simon Lobelson respectively, but acted – embodied, if you like – by Jessica O’Donoghue, Anna Dowsley and Jane Sheldon, who voice the three women, Lucia, Lucretia, and Bianca, who are acted by – you guessed – Lay, Kleeman and Lobelson. Confused? Good.

It’s an ingenious device for several reasons. First, it’s deeply discombobulating. The lip synching is almost, but not quite, perfect, and if you try hard, you can imagine that Lay’s rich baritone is coming out of O’Donoghue’s mouth, or that Dowsley’s supple soprano is really Kleeman’s own. A falsetto, perhaps? Or maybe not? The whole thing creates a visceral sense of unease, which is entirely appropriate to this disturbing story.

Second, the device engages with notions of gender in a brutally hands-on way. The libretto, while by no means sympathetic to the male characters, makes liberal use of gender stereotypes. Putting the men’s words into the mouths of women is like hearing them through the looking-glass. It dismantles the stereotype, and shatters preconceptions. What would these words sound like, from a woman? If a man said that, rather than a woman, what would you think? Does the meaning of ‘no’ depend on who is saying it? Further, it subtly undermines the authority of the every character except, perhaps, the Male Chorus: the male characters are only women dressed as men; the female characters are men in dresses. Who do we trust? Who do we believe?

It’s a brilliantly executed coup de theatre: the acting characters and their vocal avatars work together in intricate tandem, complicating and amplifying the emotion. (And it’s impressive, technically: the singers have each learnt two roles, word perfect). But the device is also, ultimately, problematic: once it has sunk in, once the doubling of characters has become almost normal, it becomes a bit of a dead weight. The point is made, but now we’re stuck with it. O’Donoghue and Kleeman – Lucretia and her husband Collatinus – do eventually revert to their own genders (although Kleeman never gets his trousers back), but by the time they do, it seems a bit arbitrary.

The other downside of the gender doubling is that the layers of meaning – voice, movement, clothing — distances the audience from the characters. This is an all too plausible story of male brutality and domestic violence, but it feels remote, archetypal. Cold. The warmth of Britten’s music – the goodnight chorus, the final prayers – only alleviates a little.

The cast and orchestra give an impressive and compelling performance of this challenging score. Jane Sheldon soars with the brittle clarity as Lucia, while Jessica O’Donoghue is a dark and swaggering Bianca and Anna Dowsley a delicate and lyrical Lucretia. The vocal honours, however, must go to Andrew Goodwin, as the Male Chorus. There’s his sombre scene-setting and a thrilling romp as he calls Tarquinius’s gallop towards Lucretia, but it’s the final moments which prove most chilling. After the threats, the chase, the rape, the blood, he must stand up, in full clerical robes, and bang on about how Lucretia’s sacrifice is somehow analogous with the suffering of Christ, with deadpan piety. Britten and Duncan leave the words and music just hanging there, all raw, faith in the face of tragedy. It’s hard to take. Are they daring you to jump out of your seat and yell, “No!”?

This production certainly yells. With Lucretia duly drenched in blood, the surviving characters don purple robes and gather round the Male Chorus, in full bishop regalia. It’s in-your-face (and, frankly, heavy-handed) but it does leave a delicious trail of doubt worming its way round the moral compass of the piece.

 

A final note:

The Rape of Lucretia was commissioned by American millionaire Dorothy and her husband Leonard Elmhirst, to inaugurate their new theatre at Dartington Hall, which had been designed by one Walter Gropius, en route from Nazi Germany to his final home in the US. The original production fell through: Glyndebourne ended up giving the premiere in 1946, and Dartington didn’t get it until 2003. But the surgical precision of David Fleischer’s set looks for all the world like Gropius’s architectural drawings for Dartington’s gardens. I wonder if he knew…

 

 

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