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Benjamin Britten had a lot of horrors in mind when he wrote The Rape of Lucretia: war, colonialism, corruption, with rape itself coming in maybe a distant fourth. Rape has long been used as a political metaphor for state weakness—see, for example, Donald Trump’s fondness for the word when describing China’s trade policies toward the U.S.—which has the consequence of trivializing the literal act for its literal victims. The very legend on which Britten based his opera, which he adapted from André Obey’s play of the same name, is almost a celebratory tale, in which the rape of a Roman noblewoman by an Etruscan prince sparked a revolt against the monarchy that brought about the Roman Republic. Britten went an extra step and turned it into a parable about Christianity, a bizarre choice for an opera set in 500 B.C.
So if for Britten, sexual violence was mostly a vehicle to resist foreign occupation and embrace Jesus, it was wise for Wolf Trap Opera to refocus on the sexual violence part. It makes this Rape of Lucretia less hamhanded, but it doesn’t make it particularly fun to watch. Or to hear.
Not that this is the fault of the cast. WTO’s singers demonstrate a great deal of both vocal and acting talent, the latter of which you can’t always count on with opera singers. This is all the more impressive given the relative obscurity of the opera compared to chestnuts such as La Bohème, which Wolf Trap puts on in August, as well as the relative inexperience of the singers, as per WTO’s mission as a training program for artists at the start of their careers.
Nor is it the fault of the orchestra, capably conducted by Craig Kier. Lucretia is a mid-20th century chamber opera, and not a pretty one: barely tonal, with repetitive, oscillating motifs and staggered counterpoints that, unlike the more lulling repetition of Glass and Adams, mostly inspire queasiness.
But for an opera about such an ugly subject matter, a little musical ugliness is appropriate. More appropriate, at least, than many other, more famous operas that pair beautiful music with fucked up plots that audiences are supposed to find romantic to some degree: statutory rape (Madama Butterfly), femicide (Carmen), incest (The Ring), etc.
Britten was keener than the romantics to turn his opera into a moral lesson, though, and Ronald Duncan’s libretto is as heavy on didacticism as it is on exposition. But their crusade is a peculiar one, railing against the paganism of the sinful Etruscans. (Interestingly, the examples of Etruscan decadence mentioned—“orgies and effete philosophies,” as well as imperial conquest and slavery—are things we now associate with the Romans.) Thus the rapist, Etruscan prince Tarquinius, is a guy who just can’t control his animal instincts (“panther agile and panther virile”) after being egged on by two Roman generals to “test the virtue” of Lucretia, the wife of a third general, Collatinus. He does, and his assault on her causes her to commit suicide, which in turn provokes an anti-Etruscan rebellion. “Rome for the Romans!” cry the citizens, but here, the politics come off as half-hearted; Lucretia’s death isn’t a noble sacrifice, it’s just pointless and sad.
J’Nai Bridges is terrific in the title role, Lucretia being the rare Britten opera with a female lead, which calls for an even rarer contralto; Bridges, however, is a mezzo. Bridges has decent range, though she’s obviously more comfortable in the lower end of her register. But she’s devastating in the defining scene, which director Louisa Muller depicts frankly with graphic violence on a rotating marble stage, and more so the next day, barely concealing her anguish from her family. As Tarquinius, Will Liverman has to do some ridiculous pantomime—like looking horny while riding a horse with no horse—but he has an appropriately menacing baritone. Bright soprano Amy Owens also shines in the minor role of Lucia, Lucretia’s maid.
Premiering in 1946, Lucretia came out between Britten’s two better known works, Peter Grimes and War Requiem. The latter touched on the same themes of war and morality without the incongruities of Lucretia: both the Jesus talk 500 years before Jesus, and the anti-colonialism at a time when Britten’s Great Britain was busy suppressing Indian independence and recolonizing Burma. Rather than downplay the incongruities, costume designer Kara Harmon ramps them up, dressing the Roman generals in Cold War-era fatigues, the female “chorus”/narrator (mezzo Keriann Otaño) in an ’80s Blondie leather jacket getup and the male chorus (tenor Brenton Ryan) as a priest. What this is supposed to do, other than confuse the audience more, isn’t clear.
The Rape of Lucretia isn’t Britten’s most-loved opera and for good reason. It deals with an unpleasant and obscure story and seems to go out of its way to miss the point. That Wolf Trap puts on a solid production of a tough-to-love opera is no small feat, and a testament above all to the skills of their singers. It’s hard to say what might compel a casual opera fan to drive out to Wolf Trap for this, but if you are, say, in too good a mood after visiting the Holocaust museum, you’ll be impressed if not exactly entertained.
The production repeats on June 15 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. at The Barns at Wolf Trap,1635 Trap Rd. Vienna, Va. $32-$88.