When the audience steps into the world of The Rape of Lucretia, the 1946 Benjamin Britten chamber opera that is being staged this weekend by the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre, they may discover some puzzling contradictions that have baffled theatergoers and critics alike. Along with a score that is deliciously dark yet lyrical and descriptive, one finds a libretto that strangely superimposes Christian dogma onto a well-known sixth-century B.C. tale from pre-Republic Rome.
The classic semi-legendary tale appears in works by several Roman poets and historians—Ovid’s Fasti, Livy’s A History of Rome—and takes place when Rome was under Etruscan rule. Roman soldiers and their generals, away at battle, learn that their wives back in Rome are being faithless to them in their absence—with the exception of Lucretia, the wife of the general Collatinus. Tarquinius, the son of the Etruscan king, decides to test Lucretia, paying her a midnight visit. When the attempt at seduction fails, he rapes her. Although Collatinus assures Lucretia that she is without blame, she commits suicide, triggering the Roman rebellion against the Etruscans and leading to the founding of the Roman Republic.
These stories became the basis for a number of literary efforts, including the well-known narrative poem by Shakespeare and a drama by the Jacobean playwright Thomas Heywood. In the 20th century, French playwright André Obey added to the collection with his 1931 play Le Viol de Lucrèce, which used short scenes and commentary to tell the story.
Following the success of his Peter Grimes in 1945, Britten found himself forced by postwar economic limitations to search for a way to conceive and produce operas on a smaller scale. Britten and librettist Ronald Duncan discovered that Obey’s Greek-style dramatic structure and small cast would be an intriguing vehicle and a perfect solution to the issue of production scale. Their resulting work consisted of eight singers and 12 instrumentalists, and expanded the use of two narrators (“Male Chorus” and “Female Chorus”) to comment on and react to the story.
It is in Duncan’s libretto, though, that we find the critical conflict and controversy—not in the depiction of the rape itself, but in the puzzling, anachronistic insertion of the Christian ideas of sinfulness and salvation into what is a decidedly pre-Christian story. Duncan later revealed in a memoir that he felt unfairly singled out by the criticism of what many felt was unnecessary religious “baggage,” as its inclusion came directly from Britten’s insistence.
Admittedly, the real hero here is Britten’s score, although it is quite easy to find it a bit bipolar due to the added-on religious connotations. Britten clearly defines individual characters through distinct melodic temperaments—a bold Tarquinius, a solemn Collatinus, a regal Lucretia—often very lyrically. Those familiar with Britten’s Albert Herring may recognize the composer’s amazing talent for orchestral suggestion of atmosphere and environment in quirky use of spare orchestration.
Since returning to UT’s Carousel Theatre for its productions, UT Opera Theatre has taken a noticeable turn toward intriguingly edgy and offbeat staging, the previous La Boheme, set in a post-apocalyptic future, and the Elvis styling of Le Nozze di Figaro being perfect examples. Similarly, word has it that The Rape of Lucretia will have an Eastern visual flavor, as well as “stylized dance with the hint of Asian Butoh.”
This UT Opera production will, as usual, feature a split cast of the eight roles over the four performances. In the title role of Lucretia will be Sarah Fitch and Dallas Noelle Norton. Tarquinius will be sung by Scott Beasley and Ryan Olson, Collatinus by Ian Richardson and Peter Johnson. The “Male Chorus” will be sung by Boris Van Druff and Marshall Rollings, with the “Female Chorus” sung by Jennifer Sohl and Linda Barnett. Junius will be sung by Aaron Dunn, Bianca by Caitlin Bolden and Julie Bélanger Roy, and Lucia by Madeline Veenker and Sydney Gabbard.
The production is being staged by UT Opera director James Marvel, with musical director Kevin Class conducting the instrumental ensemble.