La violación de Lucrecia
La violación de Lucrecia is the third José de Nebra work to be staged at Teatro de la Zarzuela, and the third to dispense with the original spoken dialogue. Miraculously, it is third time lucky. Or rather, not miraculously, for director Rafael R. Villalobos and his musico-theatrical team have produced a brilliantly ironic exercise in subversion – not as I’d feared, of Nebra’s and his librettists’s retelling of Lucrecia’s rape by Sexto Tarquinius and subsequent suicide, but of the naïve and predictable feminist narration commissioned from Rosa Montero in place of the original dialogue. Her plodding diatribe is undermined, through a series of bold interactions between the performers and the actor faced with the unenviable task of breathing life into Montero’s pile of verbal rubbish.
That’s why I must begin by tipping my hat to Manuela Velasco, as ‘The Spirit of the Legend of Lucrecia’, on whom the main burden of words and action lies. What a journey! She begins the show placidly reading her narration from a book, in the manner of the Male and Female Chorus in Britten’s (inescapable) operatic version, delivering Montero’s feminist Wiki-history lesson with smiling fervour. Also as in the Britten, she is soon interacting with the characters, meeting dignified resistance from her classical alter ego (María Hinojosa Montenegro), disdainful incomprehension from Lucrecia’s husband Colatino (Carol García), and made increasingly uncomfortable by his sex-obsessed sister, Sexto’s fiancée Tulia (Marina Monzó). Initially, she finds better sisterly support in the adolescent cynicism of Lucrecia’s maid, Laureta (Judit Subirani), greeting the anti-male mockery of the girl’s first aria with smiling approval.
So far, so predictable. What’s unexpected, is the way that gradually it is she, not they, who changes. She is dumbfounded when Colatino reacts to her smart-arsed, ignorant criticisms of the ‘pomposity’ of the original text by merely turning his back. She is shocked by Laureta’s volte face in her second aria – what women must do for the good life is ‘drop their knickers’ for men – becoming increasingly aggressive, dictatorial, and finally despairing when Lucrecia rejects her plea to not commit suicide, on the grounds that she is hurting for Colatino’s honour not her own, and will do what she must.
Finally (again like Britten’s Christian Choruses) Velasco’s narrator appears broken by the realisation that she can’t change history; that life is not easily divided into black and white; and the uncomfortable truth that not every woman chooses to act out of self-interested, feminist logic. Rather than converting her classical alter ego to 21st century morality, it is she who is converted. In a moving and unexpected postlude to the suicide, as the offstage singers (in Nebra’s own irony) deliver a paean of praise to marriage, the two Lucrecias leave arm in arm, united at last in body and spirit.
If the catalyst of Velasco’s virtuoso performance allows Villalobos’s act of alchemy, in turning Montero’s lead to gold, they are supported by every component in this captivating staging. First, Emanuele Sinisi’s simple double-set, a timeless sitting room below, and a classical bathroom above, where rape and suicide take place before our eyes. Second, Villalobos’s costuming, a diaphanous symphony of blues, buffs and royal purple, enhanced by Felipe Ramos’s bold, spotlit chiaroscuro lighting and pocket torches.
Third, the commitment of his cast – including the plinthed images of both Tarquins, father and son, the elder as vital to the zarzuela’s political plot as the younger is to its sexual action. The King is represented by a much-manhandled marble bust, the Prince by a second actor (Borja Luna), who spends his time as either a briefs-clad sex-object of Roman statuary, plaster-daubed on his plinth, or a topless playboy clad in the inevitable leather trousers, while tossing champagne around, and – sin of sins – SMOKING! That’s why we know he’s a very bad boy, and why Tulia is obsessed with him. At one point he rips off her tee-shirt and dons it himself, proudly displaying – in another of Villalobos’s shuddering ironies – its verbal message ‘We should all be feminists’. Luna’s performance works because his Sexto is no two-dimensional, masculine monster, but a voracious brat of little brain and much cock. Without being remotely condoned, in blaming everyone else for his actions this rapist is chillingly understandable.
First, second, third … next, comes Nebra’s masterly stage music, in a bold and intelligent edition by the conductor Alberto Miguélez Rouco, and played with pungent power by his period ensemble Los Elementos. Their virtues have been rehearsed in my review of their complete CD recording of the score; suffice it to add that Rouco’s variation of vocal and orchestral lines in Nebra’s extended da capos ensures that the drama moves urgently forward, while subtle underscoring from the continuo instruments keeps the musical narrative going in the pit, as firmly as on the stage.
At one point Velasco has to shout above an orchestral ritornello to be heard; but the most thrilling stroke in this battle comes at the climax. Laureta’s ‘drop your knickers’ comedy number turns initially to a bath-time romp, with Tulia and Lucrecia herself joining in the singing and splashing. Then comes the rape, visually superimposed over the aria’s jolly da capo. The others lose interest in what she’s singing. Eventually she herself finally motions the orchestra to be silent as the number collapses, everyone transfixed in horror at what is happening. This is a powerfully constructed moment of music theatre, where the score serves the stage rather than simply trundling on, regardless of what’s happening in front of our eyes. Rouco has also found a searing, sequential orchestral piece (taken from one of Nebra’s sacred works) to accompany Lucrecia’s suicide: it is piercingly moving.
Last not least, come the four singers. It is not easy to be sure about their achievements, due to problems in the sound balance of the YouTube streaming, weighted towards the instrumentalists (very heavily so in the first of the two acts) and making the singing hard to make out on occasion. With that caveat, I found Hinojosa’s Lucrecia least effective vocally, her rich and sinewy soprano not always ideally supported, sometimes uneven in projection despite its attractive timbre. In spite of this, her imposing presence – dressed in a manner reminiscent of Kathleen Ferrier’s statuesque heroine in the premiere of Britten’s opera – achieved classical nobility as she approached her graphic suicide, through Nebra’s complex solo scena. García’s stalwart mezzo-soprano made a strong impression in her well-focused delivery of Colatino’s memorable ‘simile’ arias – apostrophising first a tiger, then a lamb – and in emphasising the character’s politic impassivity to his wife’s suffering.
Subirana’s Laureta was already familiar, from her outstanding performance under Ruoco in their CD set. This promising young singer was making her stage debut, which perhaps accounts for an occasional air of not being quite confidently ‘in the moment’, and my sense that her developing voice is as yet half-a-size too small for this large theatre. Though I must repeat, that the poor balance of the streaming makes it very hard to be sure about that, without having been there. What’s not in doubt is Subirana’s vocal personality, and the effectiveness of her characterisation. On screen, the outstanding performance came from Monzó, whose Tulia was beautifully sung and no less beautifully acted. Dividing her stage time between being draped around Tarquin Jnr. and vainly trying to escape his influence, she presented a powerful image of doomed sex-obsession, effectively counterpointing Lucrecia’s transcendent nobility, in yet another of the production’s compound ironies.
Altogether – despite my fears, having laboriously ploughed through Montero’s stultifying monologue in the programme book, in preparation for the streaming – La violación de Lucrecia proved a brave triumph against the odds. I was initially sceptical, then surprised, and ultimately won over by the theatrical and musical integrity of a subversive production which is never, ever dull. Villalobos, Rouco and their cast succeed in making a strong case for Nebra’s neglected work, while bolstering Teatro de la Zarzuela’s artistic credibility in the process. Ultimately, it works because it respects the profound bond between acting and singing, upon which this and every other zarzuela – of whatever period – relies. Despite the potential horror-show of that narration, and the senseless suppression of the spoken dialogue, this proved an ‘Ancient and Modern’ evening to savour.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2023
Los Elementos recording (CD review)