There’s a saying that says, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia most definitely fulfills that second requirement. Based on the myth popularized by Roman historian Livy, among others, this 1946 chamber opera is challenging to watch. The Maryland Opera Studio, under the direction of Amanda Consol, gave a compelling, stark performance of this unsettling tale.
A Male Chorus and Female Chorus (played by James Smidt and Alexis Aimé at this performance) introduce the audience to a Rome that has been taken over by Etruscans. Tarquinius, an Etruscan prince (Mark Wanich), and generals Collatinus (Daren Jackson) and Junius (Tshegofatso Moeng) discuss how many husbands returned to Rome the previous night to find their wives had been unfaithful – all except for Collatinus’ wife Lucretia (played at this performance by Jenny Anne Flory). Tarquinius refuses to believe this, declaring, “I’ll prove Lucretia chaste.” The prince acts on his desires, and the Male and Female Chorus struggle to make sense of the myth’s tragic conclusion.
The Rape of Lucretia is the Maryland Opera Studio’s annual “white opera,” performed with minimal scenery and props and basic costumes by Sue Chiang. While the production was simple, the actors’ performances carried the story. Alexis Aimé, as the Female Chorus, was the audience’s moral compass; though removed from the story, her compassion and concern for Lucretia was palpable, especially in “She sleeps as a rose.” Aimé, a soprano, has an impressive range; she shone in her strong lower register as well as her upper one.
Mark Wanich was appropriately unnerving as Tarquinius and had some beautiful falsetto notes in “Within this frail crucible of light.” Jenny Anne Flory had some great moments as Lucretia. Her voice was refreshingly rich and full, but she could afford to engage more with her fellow actors and audience.
Daren Jackson’s bass voice was deep and rich, and he commanded the audience’s attention with his powerful voice. Tshegofatso Moeng was sensitive, and his resonant voice seemed almost effortless.
Britten masterfully wove a commentary on gender roles into his opera, combining contemplative libretto with sensitive instrumentation. Tiny nuances – such as the haunting harp at the beginning of the Male Chorus’s aria “Here the thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light” – feel calculated and foreboding. “Time treads upon the hands of women” is one standout aria that sets Lucretia and her servants, motherly Bianca (Katherine Fili) and young Lucia (Amanda Baker) spinning wool.
The never-ending, repetitive task embodies women’s everyday work. “Time treads upon the hands of women, whatever happens, they must tidy it away,” the women sing. Lucretia laments about missing Collatinus as they spin and fold sheets. “Whatever their hearts hold, their hands must fold clean linen . . . Time carries men, but time treads upon the tired feet of women.” In this scene, the women conveyed a sense of sisterhood, affection and strength when confronted with their powerless social station. Fili’s voice was warm and inviting, and Baker’s voice carried the lighthearted role.
The Choruses conclude the opera by singing, “Now, with worn words and these brief notes, we try to harness song to human tragedy.” Sexual assault and its often-tragic aftermath are still rampant today, but one can’t help but feel that contemporary social issues tend to cycle through 15 minutes of relevance before being upstaged by other problems. Yet for some who are affected, sexual assault is not just an issue that rotates in and out of the spotlight; it’s a reality they must live with every day. Perhaps, by tackling tragedy through song, art can be a vehicle by which we can work towards progress every day, not just when an issue is “hot.” Through this thought-provoking performance, the Maryland Opera Studio did just that.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Rape of Lucretia ends its run tomorrow, November 22, 2016, at 7:30 pm, at The Clarice’s Kay Theatre at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405-2787, or purchase them online.