If you go see a show and it mystifies you, thank God for the internet to answer questions.
And that’s the last thing I’ll say in this review that sounds even a little bit reverent.
When I was a young boy I saw Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in a student production, one of the first operas I’d ever seen, leaving me baffled with its curious mixture of violation and piety. Fast-forward to 2016, the second time I’ve seen this opera, and again in a student production, this time from Metro Youth Opera at the Aki Studio. To say that the world has changed in the intervening decades is hardly earth-shaking. I feel much better about being mystified as a child as there’s still a whole lot in this opera to perplex a viewer, even if the world is perhaps catching up to Mr Britten. In the 1960s there was no internet to answer a twelve-year old’s questions, whereas I think I have a pretty good idea this time.
Let me be clear, though, this is a wonderful production of Britten’s opera, staged with conviction.
I suspect there would be no staging if not for Christina Campsall, offering one of the most remarkable portrayals I’ve seen in a long time, particularly considering that MY Opera have a mandate to offer performing opportunities to young singers. Campsall would not be out of place in any professional production, looking and sounding wonderful particularly after violation, her lowest notes eloquently evoking her profound suffering.
Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia was a bright spot in the otherwise dark tale with flawless coloratura while Jonelle Sills as the Female Chorus asked the key question at the end of the opera, that I felt wasn’t really answered. But I don’t believe I can hold this against MY Opera, considering that this is likely a weakness of the opera as written.
While I think of myself as a believer, I felt like an agnostic watching the scenes of Britten’s opera everytime we ventured into the Christian gloss he’s added to the story. For example, in the Epilogue the Female and Male chorus have a kind of spiritual confrontation. The Female Chorus begins her questioning by asking:
“Is it all? Is all this suffering and pain is this in vain? Does this old world grow old in sin alone? Can we attain nothing but wider oceans of our own tears?”
Sills was wonderful, hurling her question up at the lighting booth, where the stage manager might have been the God to which this world responded. One might have expected the lights to go out, so powerful was her questioning.
The Male Chorus responds (again this is an excerpt):
“It is not all. Though our nature’s still as frail and we still fall and that great crowd’s no less Along that road endless and uphill; for now He bears our sin and does not fall and He, carrying all turns round stoned with our doubt and then forgives us all.”
I can’t blame Daevyd Pepper –the Male Chorus in the MY Opera production—that his answer seemed feeble and inadequate, given that the world Britten lived in at the time of the opera’s composition in the 1940s wasn’t precisely tolerant or forgiving. Even now rapists are enabled by a society quick to question any claims by women, making it so painful for women that many attacks go unreported. I felt no consolation in this Christian gloss upon the story, a bland series of platitudes to push me back to the agnosticism of my teens, when I didn’t go to church. Was Britten sincere, or is this a coded passage from a homosexual who was unable to frankly say what he felt to a more unforgiving world back in the 1940s? His depiction of violation is so electrifying, his depiction of shame and degradation so heart-breaking, that the Christian parts seem astonishingly lame in comparison, as if the composer were trying to say “don’t believe any of this, the truth is in the brutality of man”. And as a society we have yet to answer.
Music-director Natasha Fransblow led a very tight performance, including percussion effects with the piano above and beyond her excellent pianism. Stage Director Anna Theodosakis made a very believable tableau of violation in the secular world of a story transposed to a more recent time via costuming designed by Lisa Magill; but I suspect Theodosakis shares my ambivalence towards the opera’s preaching, her own sermon placing the focus upon consent and rape rather than faith and redemption.
The final performance of The Rape of Lucretia will be on Sunday May 1st at 2:30 pm in the Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum.