Benjamin Britten’s work opens February 3 at Wortham Center
by Rich Arenschieldt
Houston Grand Opera presents the latest installment in the work of Benjamin Britten, the 20th century’s most important operatic composer, who was also gay.
Two seasons ago, HGO presented an astonishing production of Britten’s eerie The Turn of the Screw based on the novel by Henry James. This season’s The Rape of Lucretia (after the late 16th-century narrative poem by Shakespeare) promises to be equally compelling.
Britten’s music is familiar to Houston audiences; his grippingly suspicious Peter Grimes was heard here last season, and his Billy Budd was seen several seasons ago. Each work deals with thorny issues, and characteristic of Britten, many possess disturbing sexual overtones: homophobia, child abuse, and pedophilia. Lucretia’s plot revolves around the subjugation and perpetration of violence against women. However, it’s reductive to focus on a single element in Britten’s work. This composer’s music, libretto, and drama offer an infinitely more complex interpretation.
Britten was musically, emotionally, and sexually ahead of his time. He attracted notice for his musical abilities early, studying with legendary English composer Frank Bridge at age 14. Britten attended the Royal College of Music and, at age 24, met tenor Peter Pears, the man who would become his muse and partner for life. Pears, in fact, premiered many principal roles in Britten’s operas, including Lucretia.
The work is a product of history, both ancient and modern. It is based on a 6th-century tale where Roman soldiers discover that, while at battle, all of their wives —except Lucretia—have been unfaithful to their husbands. The king’s son, Tarquinius, then plots to test Lucretia’s fidelity by raping her. Shamed, Lucretia commits suicide.
The opera was written during the creative period in Britten’s life coinciding with the end of World War II—Britten completed Lucretia at the beginning of the “postwar period” in 1946.
The 1940s were crucial for Britten. In 1940, Britten and Pears went to America at about the same time as gay writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden, Britten, and Pears shared a home in Brooklyn Heights, establishing a salon of sorts for intellectuals and queer artists of the day. During this period Auden and Britten also collaborated as librettist and composer.
These friendships and other interactions in the midst of a mushrooming world conflict cemented Britten’s pacifist views. Additionally, Britten’s associates included the most famous gay American leftist composer of the day, Aaron Copeland, who had also gained international acclaim with the New York premiere of his first major ballet suite, Billy the Kid, in 1939. At that time, this group of artists represented a kind of “pacifist musical elite.” Britten, having already written an orchestral piece called A Pacifist March in 1937, had made his political views known and endured criticism for them from his countrymen.
Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942. “I had become without roots,” Britten said. “And I returned to England to put them down.” Now an established “couple” at a time when homosexuality was illegal, Britten and Pears both sought status as conscientious objectors just as worldwide conflict was escalating with the attack on Pearl Harbor that previous December.
Britten began work on Lucretia a few years later. Britten’s previous opera Peter Grimes was a large-scale sonic tour-de-force that gained the composer international stardom. By contrast, Lucretia is an austere, intimate work with a small cast accompanied by a chamber orchestra. In some ways its sparseness mirrored what England had endured physically and emotionally during the war—events that permeated England’s national psyche as well as Britten’s compositional process.
This dark tale is intriguing to the young avant-garde director, Arin Arbus, currently the associate artistic director at Theater for a New Audience, an off-Broadway classical theater company. While her previous experience with Shakespeare has informed her work on Lucretia, this first foray into opera has been simultaneously challenging and invigorating. During a recent rehearsal, Arbus commented, “I love this piece—the music is amazing and incredibly powerful.
“My work has been rooted in the paired-down aspects of theater—character-driven works that focus on the intricacies of the relationships of people onstage. Things not normally associated with the grand spectacle of opera. I find the characters within Lucretia fascinating and incredibly complicated, and their relationships densely constructed. There’s a lot here to work with.
“Additionally, there were numerous discussions with the production designers as we decided how to ‘set’ the piece. I looked at photographs of England during the time this piece was being composed from the early- and mid-1940s during ‘The Blitz.’ Those images combined with a sort of ‘Roman ruin’ aesthetic help to determine the tone of the work.”
Having worked previously in spoken theater, Arbus is quickly adjusting to a musical framework. “Even when you have a great text, sometimes you have to work very hard to make sure people hear the words. In this piece, the music and libretto are so visceral—they just hit you.”
Working within the constraints of a musical score is new territory for Arbus. “The timing is, to a large degree, established. The rhythm and pace of the work is essentially there, set down by the composer. In a spoken-word piece, that interplay needs to be discovered in conjunction with the actors. In opera that’s already laid out—and in a sense, that’s liberating. Throughout the work, Britten provides music that helps to illuminate the characters, their personalities, who they are and, to some extent, their motivations. Britten’s music continuously sets up what happens later on dramatically.”
“I spent a long time just listening to the piece in order to achieve a complete awareness of it, both sonically and intellectually. I understood the music right away, but the characters revealed themselves to me in a more gradual fashion. They felt like archetypes while simultaneously being extremely complex human beings. I was constantly trying to determine who they really were—established constructs or incredibly intricate personalities.”
Britten further confounds audiences and directors by shifting how audiences perceive his characters, often changing perspective within a single scene. Just before raping Lucretia, Tarquinius sings a beautiful aria, “Within this Frail Crucible.” Its haunting lullaby-esque quality masks the impending crime.
Arbus is aware of the chameleon-like quality of Britten’s characters. “During the scene in Lucretia’s bedroom, Tarquinius (the perpetrator) is characterized in an almost poetic way,” Arbus says, “not as a man driven by his basest desires. He has a self-loathing (something shared by many men in Britten’s operas) and an unfulfilled need—something that transcends mere sexual desire.”
Lucretia should also be considered in a less simplistic manner than the title of the work implies. Though many view her as an unfortunate victim of circumstance, Arbus does not. “Lucretia’s rape represents a tremendous and terrible betrayal. But that does not mean that she suffers as a victim. To the contrary, I believe her to be incredibly defiant. In some way, I think she changes the world with her suicide (through the subsequent Roman revolt and the establishment of the Roman Republic). Things obviously don’t end up well, but she does influence society and history. In a certain sense she’s extremely heroic, in that she chooses her fate. She chooses to end her own life on her terms, rather than simply accepting what has happened to her and being victimized by society for it.”
Britten composed this piece at a pivotal moment in history. The devastation, despair, and loss that all of England was experiencing were profound. The work ends with an epilogue that provides hope amidst the terror that has just occurred onstage. “None of us really know what a creator was thinking,” Arbus says. “In some ways the ending is dramatically unsatisfying. It’s quite possible that, given everything the world had been through, Britten may have had his doubts about where humanity was headed. Disbelief is something you carry with you even in the midst of some amount of hope—something Britten accomplishes beautifully in the final moments. The singers in this production sustain and uplift the piece to its very last measure—something that is incredible to see and hear.”
HGO’s production of The Rape of Lucretia runs from Friday, February 3 through Saturday, February 11 at the Wortham Center’s Brown Theater
For tickets call 713.228.OPERA or visit www.houtongrandopera.org