Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”
This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities.
The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life.
“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.
The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”
Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts.
“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.
“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.”
Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.
She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.”
Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.”
Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”
The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013
Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.