Too clever for me

Last night to Carriageworks for Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of Britten’s first “chamber opera,” The Rape of Lucretia.

Something was afoot.  I was forewarned by Kip Williams’ director’s notes:

The Rape of Lucretia is a foundation myth that tradisionally has been used to perpetuate ideas surrounding the ‘value’ of a republic: namely that men must bind together in order to protect the chastity of their women.  At its core, our production asks questions of the ways in which this thinking still exists in our contemporary lives, and what impact this paradigm has had on how we think about gender, power and sex.  Ultimately, we are interested in examining this ancient culture in the context of our own, drawing parallels between ideologies and systems of power that permit masculine entitlement, engender the disempowerment of women, and both perpetuate and exonerate acts of sexual assault.  This production is an act of illumination and erosion of the exculpatory power of this history.

[….]

One of the challenges in approaching a staging of Britten’s opera is the absence of any critical perspective on the gender politics contained within the world of Rome.  By giving our performers contemporary identities as their primary relationship to the audience, we afford them an active critical voice on the politics at play.  through them we explore the performative and restrictive nature of gender in the Lucretia myth by fracturing each charater into three parts: the costume, which represents the character, the actor, who performs the character’s actions whilst lipsynching the dialogue, and the singer, who gives voice to the character.

OK.  LIPSYNCHING!  That artifice of last resort usually called upon when a singer is indisposed.  You can get used to that when it is just one singer, but why would you willingly embrace it for the practically the whole cast?

Just to explain a bit more.  It is 509BC.  Rome is ruled by Etruscan kings.  Lucretia is the only virtuous wife of a bunch of Roman aristocrats who are away in military camp – the others all find their wives otherwise engaged when they pop back to check on them.  One of the husbands, who is envious of Lucretia’s husband for having such a virtuous wife, goads Tarquinius, Prince of Rome whom no woman can refuse, to just pop back again and see how virtuous she really is – after all, maybe her virtue wasn’t tested/tempted quite enough?  T. jumps on his steed, arrives at L’s place in the middle of the night demanding hospitality [interval].  Servants we are told by the narrators (see below) are insolent towards him in a way that only servants can be.  (Servants!  We all know how they can behave!)

In the night Tarquinius goes to Lucretia’s chamber and rapes her, galloping off to the camp before dawn. Next day Lucretia summons her husband back, tells him what has happens and says – despite his entreaties that it is not her fault – that the punishment for unchastity is death and kills herself.  The Roman men vow to rise up against the tyrants, which we all know they did and founded the (scarcely less tyrannous) Roman Republic.

This all comes from Livy (a bit altered and supplemented in some details) save that in the opera a lot of the action is narrated by a male and female chorus, taking primary responsibility for the male and female spheres of action respectively.  From the start it is made clear that they are from some later, Christian, era. At the end the female chorus asks if that is all the story and the male replies it’s all fine because it’s given meaning (what meaning exactly is unclear) by Christ’s love.  This helpfully provides a bit of a chorale for the finale.

Obviously it’s not a very attractive story from the perspective of modern sexual politics.  But can the audience be trusted to work that out for themselves?  Apparently not.

Just to explain a bit more: in the first scene (at the camp) the three women singers donned insignia to designate the male characters, who were then sung, puppetteer style, by the respective male singers hovering in the background.  In the second scene the process was reversed.  And so on until the denouement when the artificae was (mostly) abandoned for more direct dramatic expression.

Various reviewers of the production have tried to find redeeming aspects to the conceit but in my opinion these are even-a-stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day sorts of advantages.  I found it genuinely confusing at first and also an obstacle to my enjoyment of the music.  You have to go along with it at the price of being totally put off so I gradually got used to it in the second scene, though not without moments when I found a “the-king-is-in-the-altogether” spirit surfacing within me.

Maybe if I went again (only $35 so not out of the question) I’d be able to deal with it better.

Of the singers, I was particularly impressed by Andrew Goodwin – not a singer I’ve always been keen on in the past – even if (and this is a response to the work rather than the singer) I found myself sighing just a bit inwardly at some of the more extended passages of aspirated tenor coloratura – BB and PP at it again. (The crucible of light is drowned!) Goodwin gave a bravura account (wrestling a chair as Tarquinius’ steed) of Tarquinius’ rush to Rome.  Later, the sinister night rustlings of T’s approach also caught my imagination.  Things continued with more drama (as you would expect) in the second half.

The orchestra/instrumental ensemble is placed behind the amphitheatre-ish set, which I think if you were low down on the tiered seating would muffle its sound.  Even from where I sat, high enough to overcome this obstacle, the orchestra still seemed a bit distant, especially when it was playing quietly.  Many details were scarcely discernible.

The house (general admission) was full (14 rows of 20 seats), including (in a reserved section) some of the great-and-good – Neil A was there with M Vallentine; Richard Mills was also there (it’s a co-production with Victorian Opera) and the man in front of me, fascinatingly, had his Australian Opera program from when they first put it on up the road in Newtown in 1971 (it came back in 1981).

At present Carriageworks also has an exhibition about the 1917 strike (which started at Eveleigh).  This includes some large and striking union banners which are on display in the main foyer/hall.  I am still trying to work out why in the Australian coats of arms which feature on them, the kangaroo and emu face away from the shield.

 

 

 

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One Response to “Too clever for me”

  1. wanderer Says:

    Good read M.

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