Rehabilitating a sexist opera: The Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre

“Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity. All women are whores by nature,” growls Roman soldier Junius (James Corrigan) in the Arcola’s revival of Benjamin Britten’s early opera The Rape of Lucretia. The opera is headlining the theatre’s annual Grimeborn festival alongside a 30th anniversary production of Mark Anthony-Turnage and Jonathon Moore’s Greek. Director Julia Burbach promises to reimagine Lucretia for the Me Too era, yet quite how she would pull this off was puzzling some audience members in the Arcola bar before the show.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s repugnantly misogynistic narrative poem, Britten’s repugnantly misogynistic 1946 opera tells the story of Lucretia, the chaste wife of Roman general Collatinus. Looking to test Lucretia’s virtue, the tyrannical prince of Rome Tarquinius rides to her house in the dead of night and demands her hospitality. When the household is fast asleep, he creeps into her bedroom and rapes her. Lucretia reasons that her honour is beyond repair and the only course of action is suicide. “See how my wanton blood washes my shame away,” she sings.

All in all, it’s not the most promising premise for a feminist opera production, and revivals have struggled to reconcile Lucretia’s politics with modern sensibilities. A recent production by the Sydney Chamber Opera and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra was plagued by walkouts and heated debates in the foyer. One audience member, Melanie Tate, told The Guardian: “I have no interest in exploring a piece of art where men tell me what rape is.”

Frustratingly, in musical terms Lucretia has undeniable artistic merit – and Peter Selwyn, music director for the Arcola production, shows Britten’s music at its best. The soundscape is full of piercing, syncopated motifs which cut like a knife through an unrelentingly tense score; fatalistic drum beats counting down the moments to the rape; and a restrained emotional range which communicates something of Lucretia’s post-traumatic numbness.

The intimate Arcola stage makes the opera a visceral fever dream. The orchestra, squeezed along a balcony above the stage, creates thrilling full-blooded music alongside a cast of impressive singers. The urgent music brilliantly compliments a staging that strips away opera’s traditional spectacle with minimal props, simple costumes and a stark colour scheme of white, black and red.

Yet the latent sexism of the opera, so obvious in the libretto, also affects the music. The overly pretty harp melodies which introduce Lucretia’s all-female household reinforce the notions of idealised femininity which are so bound up with Lucretia’s decision to kill herself. The interpersonal relationships between the soldiers are much more vividly painted than the petty jealousies between Lucretia’s servants. Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan are obviously more interested in how male insecurity and ego drive someone to commit an unspeakable act rather than how male violence affects women.

The problem facing Burbach will be familiar to anyone who has directed a revival of The Taming of the Shrew or My Fair Lady: how do you coerce a problematic text into a more palatable form? Can you go so far as to change the words? In current blockbuster Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the lyrics to ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ were changed so the eponymous teacher became a woman, avoiding any unpleasant suggestions of an abuse of power. “She just had to be a woman. Simple as that,” said Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus. Should Burbach have become Britten’s editor, snipping off the unswallowable ending and excising the characters’ frequent, unchallenged misogynistic outbursts?

Rather than taking on a wholescale reinterpretation of Britten’s opera, Burbach’s changes are subtle. The male chorus (played on press night by Rob Murray) becomes a key figure, and Burbach channels the tensions of “men telling us about what rape is” within his character arc.

Murray begins the opera as an aloof, smug academic. Dressed in black and clutching a Bible, his delivery of Britten’s prologue is given as a fastidious lecture. Gradually, he realises that he too is implicated in the action. We see him egging the soldiers on during the opening scene where Tarquinius decides to visit Lucretia. He presses a knife into Tarquinius’s hand which will act like Chekhov’s gun – Tarquinius will use it to force himself on Lucretia; Lucretia will later use it to kill herself.

Yet when the consequences of these actions unfold, Murray recoils in horror. The epilogue, which ham-fistedly tries to attach a Christian moral lesson onto the action, loses all of its authority. The male chorus by this point is a broken man, realising at last that he cannot give a detached lecture about rape. He shares the blame for Lucretia’s death.

Without altering the text, Burbach changes Lucretia’s motivation for suicide. Lucretia – played with a statuesque gravity by Bethan Langford – desperately calls for her husband after the rape, and we quickly realise that her survival depends on how Collatinus handles the situation. Andrew Tipple has so far portrayed her husband as an awkward outsider, one step back from the chauvinistic banter of the other soldiers. Could he help Lucretia break free of the cycles of victim blaming?

For a moment, it looks like the couple can pull through the trauma. But then Collatinus sings this fateful couplet: “What Tarquinius has taken can be forgotten. What Lucretia has given can be forgiven.” It’s devastating for both Lucretia and the audience, especially as Burbach has put such emphasis on the intense, passionate bond between Lucretia and her husband. Lucretia is betrayed by the one man she trusts, so she concludes that she has nothing left to live for. Langford brings a bitter sarcasm to Lucretia’s next lines: “Now I’ll be forever chaste, with only death to ravish me.”

Not everything about this production is perfect. Lucretia still feels sidelined in her own story. The female chorus (Natasha Jouhl) feels underdeveloped in contrast to her male counterpart and Jouhl does not have as powerful a singing voice as Murray. The performance would also have benefited from surtitles – although most of the articulation was excellent, some of the words did get lost during the duets and choral numbers.

Yet, despite these minor niggles, Burbach succeeds in her seemingly impossible task of rehabilitating a sexist opera without ripping it up entirely and starting again. For a short while, we can overlook Lucretia’s politics and celebrate the musical brilliance and structural complexity of the piece. For a moment, we see The Rape of Lucretia as an opera which urgently calls for new interpretations.

The Rape of Lucretia will play until 4 August.

Simon Fearn

About Simon Fearn

Former Arts Editor of Litro magazine. Theatre and film reviewers at The Stage, The Sun, Camden New Journal and A Younger Theatre. Sub Editor at Digital Spy and bet365.

Former Arts Editor of Litro magazine. Theatre and film reviewers at The Stage, The Sun, Camden New Journal and A Younger Theatre. Sub Editor at Digital Spy and bet365.

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