Chamber Drama

DAVID J. BAKER looks at Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, the dark chamber opera that has its Houston Grand Opera premiere next month.

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Costume designs by Anita Yavich for Arin Arbu's Houston Grand Opera production of The Rape of Lucretia
Costume designs by Anita Yavich
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Benjamin Britten
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Director Arin Arbus
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera

The Rape of Lucretia  may be the most controversial of all Benjamin Britten's operas. It is also a work of devastating power contained in a deceptively modest package. Composed on the heels of Peter Grimes, this 1946 opera marks a decided change in scope, partly from economic necessity. The vast chorus and orchestra so central to the fabric of Grimes are gone; the new opera, more affordably, employs just thirteen musicians and eight singers. A small-scale French play from 1931 by André Obey, based on Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucretia, gave Britten the idea for an intensely charged chamber opera. In brief scenes with commentary, Obey portrayed the legendary rape of the Roman matron Lucretia by Prince Tarquinius, an Etruscan overlord, and the responses to this aggression — her suicide and a nationalist uprising by the Romans.

Britten and his librettist, pacifist poet Ronald Duncan, were especially fascinated by the French playwright's use of an elaborate framing device. Two narrators, a man and woman, serve as something of a Greek chorus in the play, describing the actions mimed by the characters, commenting and reacting, sometimes by averting or covering their eyes. Occasionally they even try to jump in and halt the attack. In the opera, they become the Male Chorus (a tenor role created by Peter Pears) and Female Chorus (first sung by soprano Joan Cross), and their role is enhanced far beyond anything seen in the French play.

What has most troubled the critics is not the rape itself. In treating the thorny subject, the opera offsets its realism with complex feats of exegesis and moralization. We can only conclude that the composer himself is conflicted — intrigued and yet repelled by his own subject. A listener experiencing the Britten–Duncan Lucretia for the first time undoubtedly feels the same jolt that troubled the critics at its Glyndebourne premiere — but it occurs well before the rape scene. In the prologue, in fact, the Male Chorus offers a brief history lesson about the oppressive Etruscans, but then his female counterpart unexpectedly shifts perspective:

    This Rome has still five hundred years to wait
    Before Christ's birth and death….

With these words the narrators look beyond the fictional confines to a timeless, religious context; they go on to promise — in lines shifting in tonality, which will return as a refrain — that they will view this drama "through eyes which once have wept with Christ's own tears." Suddenly, incongruously, the drama is tinged with ideology — and anachronism, telling a pre-Christian story from a Christian perspective. 

There is far more of this lamentation and moralizing to come. The work will not choose between realism and spirituality, however: unlike Britten's other operas, which are either darkly secular (Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and so on) or actual church pageants (Curlew River, Noye's Fludde), The Rape of Lucretia is an attempt to have it both ways. In this tense dynamic, the work sometimes feels like two different operas contesting a single stage. 

Early scenes unfold with only occasional help from the narrators, as Britten's mercurial gem of a score crystallizes the two distinct social worlds of the men and women of Rome — only to upset that carefully delineated balance. These separate spheres are typified in a drinking song for the men, a spinning song for the women — a classic operatic pairing of gender and genre. The military males' bibulous salutes to Lucretia's honor turn a bit sour and inflame Tarquinius; the men hammer out her name in an angular little six-note fragment that will recur repeatedly, expanded — an insistent goad and weapon, especially in the bedroom episode. It contrasts with the circling, undulating lyricism of the heroine and her female entourage in their early scene, which, until Tarquinius abruptly bursts in, is more tonal in harmony.

The Male Chorus, after a futile appeal ("Go to bed, Tarquinius"), tracks the aggressor's frantic progress on horseback to Rome. In the next act, the male narrator's quiet recitative, accompanied only by furtive-sounding drumbeats, dramatizes the villain's stealthy path through the darkened house to Lucretia's bedside. In a soft lullaby, the Female Chorus watches her dreaming of her absent husband and then describes the intruder's kiss that shocks her awake.

For this bedroom confrontation, Britten deploys techniques nearly as graphic as Richard Strauss's aural simulations of intercourse in the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier and the interlude in Feuersnot. Lucretia sings a sequence of outraged, defensive lines that skip a few steps on the musical scale, while Tarquinius, each time, abruptly and roughly utters just the notes she omitted — as if penetrating that interval. 

But then the narrators intrude, repeatedly urging Tarquinius to desist. From this point on, the rape scene is a vocal quartet. The mood is incongruously becalmed; the singers one by one adopt an oblique, poetic style of speech that seems impossible to explain other than as an effort at evasion or denial. As Tarquinius draws his sword to force compliance, we hear this unlikely exchange:

    Tarquinius: Poised like a dart
    Lucretia: At the heart of woman.

Here the scene veers off into a realm of remote generalization. Besides displacing the focus from body to "heart," Lucretia goes impersonal, saying "woman" (not "a woman," let alone "me" or "my"), and the two narrators similarly speak of "man," God and hell. All four voices sing their lines entirely on the same note, F, a monotone suggesting a frozen moment of detached commentary — anything but action. 

Two other curious episodes follow, framing the rape itself. The librettist uses first mythology, then Christianity to put further distance between the viewer and the crime. Lucretia, Tarquinius, the Male and Female Chorus sing identical lines about the rapist earning damnation, but in obscure, pagan poetic language ("Man climbs towards his God … the centaur mounts the sky … sun … seeds of stars…. Tarquinius is drowned"). They are looking ahead to consequences, all four now serving as commentators.

In a brief return to realism, Tarquinius extinguishes the candle with his sword to close the scene. The narrators go on, however, in the ensuing interlude to intone what can only be called a Christian hymn, although it begins like a prose commentary or sermon: "Here in this scene you see virtue assailed by sin…. All this is endless sorrow and pain for Him." Four stanzas to the same droning, insistent tune invoke not only Christ but "Mary most chaste and pure." These mournful D-minor lines, which Duncan once referred to as a "chorale," are indeed, despite Britten's wildly harsh instrumental background, reminiscent of the chorale tunes in a Bach Passion oratorio, which draw a lesson from a painful episode in Christ's suffering. 

Still, this is not an oratorio. Duncan's published reminiscences about his long friendship and brief collaboration with the composer, Working with Britten, indicate, in fact, that the tension in this opera between action and commentary, characters and narrators, went one step further: a conflict developed between librettist and composer. Duncan writes of his regret that Britten never set the record straight after critics blamed the librettist for the Christian baggage that nearly overwhelmed the opera. The composer wheedled his collaborator not just to add the religious interlude or "chorale" immediately following the rape but to provide "one or two pages" at the very end of the opera — he eventually insisted on four — despite the librettist's protests that the work was already complete. 

Director Arin Arbus, who is staging the work for its company premiere at Houston Grand Opera next month, also finds that "the Christian message feels rather hollow. Dramaturgically it's a deeply unsatisfactory resolution. It's almost as if Britten depicts the human need to create a god when confronted with despair." Puzzled at first, she found her own "point of entry into the opera" when she viewed documentary photographs of England in 1946, the year the work was first presented. "I can imagine Britten, who spent a good part of the war in America, coming back home to his country and being confronted with all that devastation and trying to make sense of it." Suddenly, Arbus felt that the opera made sense, as a response to suffering. 

"That's where the chorus comes in. They're like us, like Britten, in that they are involved emotionally, interested in the history and yet not able to affect it. I feel a note of hope at the end. [Britten and his countrymen] needed hope at a moment like that in history, when hope was the only thing that was going to get them through."

The Houston production's sets, designed by Jean-Guy Lecat, will depict Roman architectural ruins, while the Male and Female Chorus will wear clothing from the early postwar era, when the opera was written. Rather than tip her hand about specifics in her staging — such as the thorny problem of the commentaries uttered during the rape scene itself — Arbus emphasizes the main philosophy that shapes her approach. "I find this is a piece that contains really interesting and complex ambiguities. I feel that the main challenge of staging this opera is to preserve those ambiguities, to present them as clearly as possible, so that the audience can savor them and leave the theater asking questions about the piece."

If only Britten had trusted his audience as much. The epilogue promises theological comfort in words and music of undeniable skill and delicacy. But after so many commentaries and such a splintered viewpoint, it is hard to disagree with Duncan's view that The Rape of Lucretia had already ended. 

What the listener cannot forget, let alone resist, is the music of that original ending. It is a sextet, in which the characters — including the narrators — are left shocked and despondent by Lucretia's suicide, "that she, being so pure, should die." They ask if this loss and grief are all we can expect of life — "Is this it all? It is all!" — in what remains the finest piece in the score. Using only the six voices and a small instrumental unit, the lament achieves a visceral impact that beggars all the arguments that have gone before and those applied afterward in the epilogue. Britten's sextet is anything but an explanation and far more than an answer. It is the music of human loss. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. 

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