Opera Reviews
12 December 2019
Untitled Document

A worthwhile and challenging evening

by Miguel Carneiro de Moura
Britten: The Rape of Lucretia
Teatro Nacional de São Carlos - Lisbon
December 2017

Britten´s first chamber opera (1946) was given its Portuguese premiere at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlo.

With a libretto by Ronald Duncan based on a play by André Obey, the story is set in ancient Rome in 509 B.C. The protagonists are Lucretia, the only virtuous woman in Rome; the sexually omnivorous Etruscan prince Tarquinius, who rapes her; and her noble husband, Collatinus, whose forgiveness cannot keep his wife from killing herself. In homage to Greek tragedy the opera presents two solo singers, called Male Chorus and Female Chorus, who comment upon the story as it progresses. Much of the opera´s grisly action and emotional ambiguity are conveyed in Britten´s pungent and unconventional score.

Luis Miguel Cintra´s minimalist production did not entirely surmount the libretto's challenges, and couldn’t get past the problem of a woman blaming herself for being violated. Cintra was more interested in the opera as an experiment involving all the participants inviting the audience to question the influence of external forces, political and social, affecting the liberties of the individual.

The staging, rather indeterminate, was scanty:  workers and technical assistants of the TNSC setting up a painted wall of Lucretia´s house, adjusting the lightings, a piano, chairs, a bed. There was a hint at totalitarian regimes, as the Roman generals wore the uniforms of the period of the dictator Salazar (1933-1974). 

Paulo Santos conducting an ensemble, made up of players of the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa, gave a vivid reading of the score.

All the performers had merit, despite some problems with diction. The opera spotlights the roles of the narrators: Marco Alves dos Santos (Male Chorus) and Dora Rodrigues (Female Chorus), both excellent. Baritone André Baleiro brings a robust voice and fervour to his performance as the lascivious and intense Tarquinius. Mezzo soprano Maria Luísa de Freitas sang Lucretia, noble in tone yet tragically vulnerable in her physical and emotional isolation. The actual rape was kept out of scene, as Tarquinius and Lucretia left ambiguously at the rear, the Female Chorus having previously beaten out the candle burning at the bedside. Two Roman generals were well played by Luis Rodrigues (Collatinus) and Christian Luján (Junius). Ana Ferro was an assertive Bianca and Joana Seara made a sweet young maid Lucia.

In a disturbing epilogue the Female Chorus wonders if there is any meaning to these tragic events. The Male Chorus insists in its message of Christian consolation. But the question remains: “Is it all?" The final scene was drained of dramatic impact. Whatever the limitations, this proved a worthwhile and challenging evening.

Text © Miguel Carneiro de Moura
Photo © Bruno Simão Photography
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