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Her, too

Tacoma Opera presents an all-too-relevant tragedy

Laurel Semerdjian (Lucretia). Photo credit: LaurelSemerdjian.com

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We'll state this up front: Benjamin Britten's English-language opera The Rape of Lucretia is about the circumstances preceding and consequences resulting from an act of sexual assault. For that reason it's been a focus of debate since its 1946 premiere. Director Linda Kitchen of Tacoma Opera took the show on fully cognizant of the #MeToo movement and our likelihood of recoiling from its title. Staging it requires a deft touch, considerable talent and theatergoers prepared to confront vast, societal injustice.

According to two pre-Christian historians who lived four centuries after the alleged incident, Tarquin, son of a king of Etruria, visited the home of a governor named Lucius Collatinus. The Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was also the last king of Rome. Tarquin and Collatinus had been arguing whether wives remained faithful to their husbands who were away on military campaigns. Collatinus insisted his own wife, Lucretia, was trustworthy, and indeed she was found utterly blameless by Tarquin. Yet he crept into her room and leveled an impossible choice: submit to sexual assault or be falsely charged with the capital crime of adultery. Let us further say the story ends catastrophically; it's claimed its outcome incited the downfall of Roman monarchy and the rise of its classical republic.

Lucretia has been a symbol of wronged womanhood ever since. Dante casts her in his Limbo for "virtuous pagans." Chaucer includes her in his poem "The Legend of Good Women." Shakespeare wrote her a long poem of her own, "The Rape of Lucrece." Jacobean dramatis Thomas Heywood penned The Rape of Lucretia, echoed by French playwright André Obey in 1931. Librettist Ronald Duncan drew from Obey's play when versifying Britten's "chamber opera" score for 13 instruments. The orchestra and (eight-member) cast were kept small to facilitate production and touring in cash-strapped, postwar England and America.

The Rape of Lucretia's title crime is described rather than shown, and no one blames the victim by citing her dress or behavior. All the same, it's easy to see why some consider this opera unfit for production, whatever its considerable merits both musical and dramatic. The Guardian critic Germaine Greer, for example, observes in "the masculine account of rape ... The woman does not stand for herself, but for a galaxy of notions." Although Britten's religious views were unclear, he imposed a Christian framework of choral narration on the story to promise justice would prevail eventually, even if pagan Lucretia could not be around to enjoy it. That seems thin reassurance.

"With this piece," says Kitchen, "there are so many issues that are brought up that I've decided to tackle them all rather than dive past them." The choral commentators profess faith that Jesus will restore fallen justice to humankind. Kitchen, raised Christian herself, suggests they're "tussling with their own religious beliefs. I think it becomes quite an interesting piece if you don't see it through the eyes of a fully committed Christian. ... It's not something to be hidden on the repertoire shelf, just like all the ideas within it are not to be avoided. ... Ultimately, it's really going to speak to this day's audience. (I hope) they go away feeling like they had some questions answered but want to ask more."

THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA, 7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 1; 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 3 and 10; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 8, Tacoma Arts Live, Theater on the Square, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $26-$56, 253.627.7789

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