There’s a lot happening in composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Ronald Duncan’s curious 1946 opera The Rape of Lucretia, and even more happening in director Kip Williams’ production for Sydney Chamber Opera.
At the core of the opera is the story of Lucretia (Anna Dowsley) and her attacker Tarquinius (Nathan Lay), and the sexual assault which played a significant part in the birth of the Roman Republic. But the entire action is framed through the perspectives of a dual chorus — two narrators coming at the story with a mid-20th century Christian sensibility — who relay and comment on the narrative for the audience.
On the top of that, Williams and associate director/costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby offer a fascinating examination of the intersection of gender and power within the work.
To achieve this, the male singers on stage perform the action of the female characters (while lip-syncing to the female singers’ voices), and the female singers perform the action of the male characters (and lip-syncing to the male singers’ voices).
It sounds rather convoluted, and the effect is initially a little difficult to get your head around. But it eventually offers up some extraordinary resonances, particularly as the relationship between the voice and physical action evolves in the second act.
It’s almost as if the singers are willing their voices into the body of their character, but when Lucretia is attacked, the connection between body and voice becomes particularly complex and fractured.
Williams and Gadsby deconstruct the work with great intelligence and build a theatrical experience that is both an arch and knowing comment on the content and structure of Britten’s opera, and a completely satisfying and moving piece of theatre in and of itself.
There has been griping among some other critics that Williams’ production is too much of a departure from what Britten had intended, and imposes a critical contemporary lens in a way that is in conflict with Britten’s work. This production offers a far more critical look at the shaming structures of Christianity than Britten would have imagined.
But the libretto and score is entirely intact, and no operatic history has been rewritten here. If audiences want a better understanding of what Britten had intended in the staging of the piece, they can always consult one of the more traditional renderings that’s been filmed and released.
For a company to stage an opera which has sexual assault as its focus in Australia in 2017 without a deeply critical contemporary lens would be a complete abrogation of responsibility on a director’s part.
Williams and Gadsby have met this challenge head-on. Their production manages to avoid reenacting violence against women in a sensationalist and exploitative way, but allows the full weight of the assault to land.
Anna Dowsley gives the best performance I’ve seen from her as Lucretia, working in close collaboration with Jeremy Kleeman, who embodies the character for much of the piece. Dowsley may be disconnected from the physicality of her character, but her vocal performance is exciting and dramatically-driven. She has astonishing warmth and clarity throughout her entire range, none of which is sacrificed as Lucretia endures all kinds of torment.
Kleeman sings gorgeously as Collatinus, with a great sense of relaxed authority, while Nathan Lay finds the full ferocity of Tarquinius. Meanwhile, Simon Lobelson is a steady and very secure presence as the more devious Junius.
Jessica O’Donoghue has the rather difficult task of singing Lucretia’s pragmatic and devoted nurse Bianca, while performing the actions of Lucretia’s attacker. O’Donoghue handles this duality brilliantly. Jane Sheldon has a similarly tough combination of vocal and physical roles, her soprano bell-like in its clarity, even if her diction was a little rough around the edges at the performance I attended.
Williams and Gadsby haven’t made a particularly strong statement with their staging or costuming of the two chorus performers, but Andrew Goodwin and Celeste Lazarenko both prove to be engrossing narrators, with confident vocal performances.
The 12-piece orchestra, under conductor Jack Symonds, finds the perfect dramatic dynamic for the intricate, knotty score. Although they’re situated behind a platform, which creates an unusual acoustic quality, there’s superb balance amongst the ensemble, and a great unity with the singers on stage.
There are clear connections between Williams’ approach to identity and gender in this production, and in his recent production of Cloud Nine for Sydney Theatre Company. There are elements of his Lucretia that don’t quite have the intellectual clarity that you might hope — applying this identity-focused response to Lucretia is much harder than applying it to a work already built around identity, such as Cloud Nine — but it’s one that takes no easy way out and refuses to diminish the fallout from the attack at the centre of the work.
Featured image by Zan Wimberley