Excellence can seem such a simple achievement. Merely assemble practiced, solid parts such as singer/actors, music and libretto (on a timeless theme) and put them on a stage-in-the-round so all their virtues wrap the audience in easy accessibility — not to mention three electronic boards with the dialogue raised high so it’s readable from every angle — and continue, for the duration, to stay out of the way, for goodness sake, until the play is done!
Actually, there is some meddling with this simple formula which is so professional that one barely notices, but feels, the enhancements it delivers, while watching Benjamin Britten’s new Boston Lyric Opera production of “The Rape of Lucretia.”
Three toughs who also happen to be aristocrats occupy a steep flight of stairs at stage rear of the opening scene. Between battles with a Greek army threatening Rome, they are contemplating what other win/lose games they can play with their time and their wives. Why not test their wives’ chastity by sending spies to Rome? Fueled by wine and recklessness, they succeed in tallying up a score — which only inflames the “friendly” rivalry between them.
Gradually, the idea dawns on the least principled among them, or, perhaps simply the most powerful, the Etruscan prince, Tarquinius (played by baritone Duncan Rock), to fly to Rome and sully the chastity of Lucretia (mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor) — the only wife who comes out spotless.
These are rough men, formed by the rough trade of keeping the peace of an empire with artful violence; their chesty voices bellow with readiness to kill for peace, but how to enjoy peace eludes them.
Meanwhile, beneath the steep and slippery slope occupied these three warrior/rivals, exists the well-founded peace of Lucretia’s household. It’s a shared peace formed by a status of interaction between the principled Lucretia, and her handmaidens — each with their own vital, loving agency.
Benjamin Britten’s flexible score, the libretto, the singing/acting, even the slow, dignified movements of the personae, so different from the lurching movements, bellowing voices of the warriors underscore how alien these two circles of war and peace are — and how dangerous is their intimate and vexed intersection.
As befits the timeless conundrum of war and peace, the staging of Lucretia’s household, in all its fragile complexity and strength, circles before the encircling audience so slowly and mesmerically that we seem to both smell and taste as well as see and hear its mysterious, vulnerable essence.
Parceling out time, without undue adornment, conjures the poetry of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” especially the line: “What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem?” When these two worlds collide in the persons of Tarquinius and Lucretius, the resonance is cosmic. And Lucretia’s despair at her violation recalls Ophelia’s lost madness at Hamlet’s betrayal of their love.
It must be more than an absence of interference which allows such resonances to unfold from a simple tale and trusty resources but I couldn’t see it for looking — or perhaps I was too busy fielding and feeling to care.
See for yourself as the BLO’s dramatic production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” unfolds in Boston’s Fort Point Neighborhood at Artists for Humanity’s Epicenter — a sinfully easy destination to reach on the Redline to the Broadway stop.
(Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Rape of Lucretia” takes place March 11-17 at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, 100 West 2nd St., Fort Point, Boston, Massachusetts. Showtimes on Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 5 p.m. For tickets, visit (617) 542-6772 or visit blo.org.)