Ancient myth triggers 21st century questions

August 1, 2017

by Miriam Cosic

When the English composer Benjamin Britten began writing The Rape of Lucretia, which premiered in 1946, he set out to break new ground. He even invented a name for his new genre: chamber opera.

Britten in the mid-1960s Image: Hans Wild


“He was trying to create a new form of opera based on the expression of a small group of instruments and singers that gained in its intensity from its economy,” says conductor and Sydney Chamber Opera’s artistic director, Jack Symonds. “Peter Grimes, Britten’s earlier opera, is a Verdian opera with all the bells and whistles,” he says. “But in The Rape of Lucretia, Britten takes that last step towards making the musical discourse feel both epic and intimate at the same time.”

He achieved this by means of a “tangled polyphony”, as Symonds calls it, a style that had slowly disappeared in the evolution of music since the baroque era as orchestras grew larger and grander. “He created such textures, such extraordinary and strange combinations of instruments that had never been heard before.” Britten gave very precise directions about how his music should be played. He also recorded almost everything he wrote, leaving an immortal instruction manual for his interpreters.

Nonetheless, Symonds believes that Britten, a very dapper and well-mannered Englishman who was never ruffled even when rehearsing, seldom pushed his music in performance to the emotional extremes he himself had foreshadowed in his scores.  Symonds comes to Britten through a particular interest in Berg and the German Expressionists and interprets Britten not only through the spirit of his times, but by knowing his biography and the way he lost the coolness of his early works after he met his partner, the tenor Peter Pears and left for America.”

The opera is in two acts, with the libretto by Ronald Duncan based on André Obey’s 1931 play, Le Viol de Lucrèce. Britten wrote the solo role of the Male Chorus for Pears and the role of Lucretia for the magnificent voice of Kathleen Ferrier. It is, in a way, the dawn of the kind of work Sydney Chamber opera does.


Image: Titian, Tarquin and Lecretia, 1571


The music is the music, but how to tackle the staging of such a terrible story, full of historic resonance, in our times? The plot comes from an ancient myth, in which a prince of Rome, Tarquinius, tests the chastity of the wife of one of his generals, Collatinus. When she remains faithful to her husband, Tarquinius rapes her. Collatinus is sympathetic when he returns, even reassuring, but Lucretia cannot live with the dishonour and she kills herself. Junius, the general who had originally goaded Tarquinius into the act, is moved to plot a rebellion against the king. And so the story became a founding myth of the Roman Republic.

Kip Williams, artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company who is directing the opera, admits that he found the libretto daunting when he first read it. So too did associate director and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby and the rest of the production team. “The ideas within it, particularly in relation to setting up the rules of Rome are immensely problematic,” Williams says. “They’re very prescriptive about how women are and how men are, and it’s totally antithetical to my politics and politics of my collaborators, to how we wish to see men and women depicted and the type of world we want to live in.”

Gadsby says, “As contemporary theatre-makers, we have to ask ourselves what we are trying to say with this. Why do we think it’s relevant to use up time in the theatre with it? Britten never probed the gender politics of the myth itself, which makes sense, given that he was writing in the 1940s when gender politics still had a way to go. But we’re in 2017, so we have to approach it with a much more complex and nuanced reading.”


An Index of Metals, by Fausto Romitelli, Directed by Kip Williams, Conductor Jack Symonds, Production Design  Elizabeth Gadsby, 2015 Image: Zan Wimberley


After spending time with the text, Williams says, he came to see it as a “subversive work of existentialism”. When you consider that Britten had visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp the year before, that approach seems appropriate. The work is permeated with the Christian notion of forgiveness, and Williams found himself wondering, first, about the kind of political structure built out of such mythic violence and, second, whether there is an anthropological inevitability to the particular form of violence. “How can we expect Christianity to be a real thing if it’s a system of belief predicated on absolving us from this kind of behaviour,” Williams asks rhetorically.

Williams believes that the job of theatre is to take audiences into a critical space where they can challenge their own assumptions. “There was little to be gained by asking the audience to watch something graphic around this subject matter,” he says. Gadsby explains that the team came up with a concept of gender as performance. Socialisation into gender has been widely explored, but this idea poses a different, and exciting, question. In this production, the concept has been put into effect in a way that deepens the sense of meta-narrative that the traditional Greek Chorus already invokes.

Each of the characters will be projected in three layers: the costume, signifying the social role of the individual; the actor, who will lip-sync the libretto; and the singer who will be freed to give his or her absolute all. The sex of the actor and the singer will be exchanged for each role, highlighting our assumptions. “You think you look at people just as people,” Gadsby points out. “But when there’s an intersection between male performer and female role, and it jars, you suddenly realise that the way you normally see everything is deeply gendered.”

19-26 AUG 2017
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