Both Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto tell stories in which women without power are raped by boozy and powerful men (a king, a duke), then feel ashamed and kill themselves (the women, not the men; the men get away with it). Both are also based on historical events. Lucretia's rape, around 500 BC by Tarquinius, the Etruscan king's son, inspired Romans to revolt and create the Roman Empire. Victor Hugo's play Le Roi S'amuse, which inspired Rigoletto, was inspired by stories of the sexually violent exploits of 16th-century King Francis I of France. Both operas were also subversively political when they premiered. Verdi's opened in 1851 when Italy was being run by Austria, Britten's in 1946 when England was just beginning to get over being bombed by Germany. They both use rape as a metaphor. But rape is not a metaphor; it's a horrible thing experienced by (mostly) women. Do not diminish it like that. Don't use it to talk about something else. If you're going to talk about it, then talk about it.
Vespertine Opera's fifth production, a riveting Rape of Lucretia, neither shies away from nor creepily eroticizes the violence of the rape of at the center of the story. Under the astute direction of Dan Wallace Miller, José Rubio both vocally and physically portrays the horrible fracture of self that turns Tarquinius into a man who'll rape: His voice strains when it ought to, and his face gets hard then rubbery. Julia Benzinger's Lucretia captures the confusion, loathing, and loathing of self—her body juddering between hesitance and urgency—that occurs when a victim decides she is partly to blame and then becomes ashamed and suicidal.
In grand or even just great big opera, the performers are on a stage a long way away from you, and if you see their faces and their big broad gestures, it's probably through binoculars. But chamber operas like this one (cast of eight, orchestra of a dozen) are intimate, and St. Mark's Cathedral was the perfect venue. Though the story is set several centuries BC, the two-person chorus (Brendan Tuohy, fierce, and Holly Boaz, tender) is intended, in Ronald Duncan's libretto, to interpret the action from a Christian perspective. After the rape, the suicide, and the grief (the latter rendered exquisitely by the super-terrific young bass Colin Ramsey as Lucretia's husband), the Female Chorus asks repeatedly, as if stunned: "Is it all?" The Male Chorus answers:
It is not all...
Though our nature's still as frail
He bears our sin
And then forgives us all...
He is all!
Despite the hope suggested in the words, under Miller's direction, the Female Chorus pushes the Male Chorus away, reversing the meaning of the text.
Vespertine, which describes its mission as "performing unfamiliar works in unfamiliar places," is making opera unfamiliar again in all the best ways—i.e., surprising. Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera's soon-to-retire general director, was at St. Mark's on opening night and must have been happy to see so many young artists who'd been nurtured by Seattle Opera (such as Miller, Ramsey, and Emma Grimsley) coming into their own.
Rigoletto is one of opera's great sing-alongs, and Seattle Opera's 2004 version set in Mussolini's Italy, while not surprising, remains crisp and engaging. I don't know what it was about lower vocal registers this weekend, but the Rigoletto standout for me was also the bass, Andrea Silvestrelli. An amoral hit man is not someone I should be drawn to, but Silvestrelli's burr was just so butterscotchy. Nadine Sierra, in her Seattle Opera debut, portrays Gilda as somehow, even after her sexual violation, innocent. Maybe Gilda is one of those women who, post–sexual trauma, constructs herself an explanation of her rape as, well, a metaphor? Or a rite of passage one must take for "love"? Maybe rape, in addition to being a physical fact always, is in some way not only an example of but also a metaphor for abuse of power?
Maybe rape is always what it is and also something else.