The rape of Lucretia has been commemorated countless times in the arts — most famously by Shakespeare’s narrative poem and in the paintings by Botticelli and Titian. Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is the best-known musical treatment — which is not to say you can see it in Boston just any time. So the admirably straightforward Boston Lyric Opera production at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Fort Point is welcome, the more so since stage director Sarna Lapine lets the work’s many perplexities speak for themselves.
The Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BC, describes Lucretia as a noblewoman around 510 B.C. when Rome was ruled by the Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus. Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, boasts of her virtue; inflamed with desire, the king’s son, Tarquinius Sextus, rapes her. Lucretia, overcome with shame, reveals what happened with Collatinus and then stabs herself, whereupon the Romans overthrow the Etruscan monarchy and establish the glorious Roman Republic.
Ronald Duncan’s dense, florid libretto for Britten’s opera is based on André Obey’s 1931 play “Le viol de Lucrèce.” What you notice straight off is the gender balance: soldiers Tarquinius (Duncan Rock in this production), Collatinus (Brandon Cedel), and Junius (David McFerrin) on the one hand, Lucretia (Kelley O’Connor), her old nurse Bianca (Margaret Lattimore), and her maid Lucia (Sara Womble) on the other. And the women get equal singing time.
On one level, “The Rape of Lucretia” is about the dark mystery of human desire. While the men are warring with Greece, their wives are carousing at home — all except Lucretia. Cuckolded Junius suggests that Collatinus is just lucky and invites Tarquinius to test Lucretia. Tarquinius returns to the city and tries to seduce her. When she sings “In the forest of my dreams you have always been the tiger,” you wonder whether she will be on some level complicit — whether, as Junius has argued, “Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity.” But no, this Lucretia is blameless. Collatinus concurs; she kills herself all the same. Is she obsessed with purity, as the libretto suggests? Or is she making a protest against violence by men against women?
There’s also a political dimension: In one scene all shout, “Down with Etruscans! Rome for the Romans,” and, at the end, Junius proclaims “I will rule.” (Of course, he’s the one who incited Tarquinius.) And then there’s the opera’s controversial Christian frame: a Male Chorus (Jesse Darden) and Female Chorus (Antonia Tamer) whose commentary attempts to bridge ancient and modern perspectives, explaining that “In His Passion, He is our hope.” That might seem to be Britten’s answer, and yet the Chorus’s final statement is right out of ancient Greece: “Now with worn words and these brief notes we try to harness song to human tragedy.”
The BLO production runs a tight 110 minutes without intermission. The focus of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s minimal set is the stark staircase that descends from a rear platform to center stage. Conductor David Angus and the 13-member orchestra occupy that rear platform behind a gauze curtain, a good setup for the singers. Robert Perdziola’s unfussy costumes are, like the set, effective and unobtrusive. The English surtitles are bright and properly synched.
You almost don’t need them, since the cast sings with clarity as well as power and as much individual character as the opera’s persistent intensity allows for. At Monday’s opening performance, Cedel’s huge, deep Collatinus made the biggest vocal impression. But Rock humanized his young rake of a Tarquinius (it’s too bad the character disappears after the rape), and O’Connor’s quiet dignity kept the emotional spotlight where it belongs, on Lucretia. Many treatments of the legend have us looking at Lucretia. In this production, she answers back.
The Rape of Lucretia
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, Monday (repeats March 13, 15, 16, and 17). Tickets $25-$182. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org