We in Minneapolis/Saint Paul enjoy one of the world’s great images of the Roman matron Lucretia, Rembrandt’s deeply moving portrayal just after she’s stabbed herself. I’ve stood before this achingly beautiful young woman, her chemise stained with blood, a tear on her cheek, as she holds onto a bell rope, ringing for her maid even as she is about to collapse. The painting is entirely about innocent suffering, the rape a wager made among her husband’s officers, and cruelly executed in his absence. She has been dragged from bed.
And stands before us in bruised and shattered innocence. Preparing to watch Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name at the Teatro Goldoni, a few weeks ago in Florence, I held this image before me.
“Everything in Italy is always the first time,” quipped a gentleman behind me as I asked if this line was for reservations. He gave me a quintessential Italian shrug as we inched forward to the ticket window. The Teatro Goldoni was closed for renovations, my friend and companion Grazia told me. I assumed we were thus viewing the opening production.
Like many Italian theaters I’ve seen before, the Teatro Goldoni is a jewel-box of a place, narrow and tall with a high stage, and the boxes like bird cages ranked together to the sky. Our box with four,velvet-cushioned chairs was almost in the middle, but high up, next to il pigioneaio (or some such, a slang term for the top-most crowded quarters, like a tenement flocked with birds).
A tall, shy youngish man had already entered when I took the other front seat. We gave each other a simple greeting and he hunched over a book or libretto? Grazia entered after smoking a cigarette outside (she still smokes as so many Italians. I wish to heaven she’d stop!)
The opera is told from a great remove, with two commentators setting forth the conflict between Romans and Etruscans. They sing against flashes of imagery from ancient sculpture, modern warfare, notably World War II. When we enter the drama, brave, hardy men quarrel and plot, with murder and conquest in mind. Still nothing about Lucretia, quietly at home.
Then we meet her. She is gorgeous, but we are to understand, chaste. Still her power and glamor interest the composer/librettist more than her modesty. Her power is linked to her beauty and status as the wife of a commanding general.
When the rape begins to take root, the story and music focus on the soldier who vows to test her fidelity. There’s a lot of commentary about fickle women, about how the body takes over when touched in certain ways–a bit like a hidden safe unlocked by a secret spring. The commentators bemoan the man’s rough determination. We see Lucretia laughing and playing, guilelessly worried about her husband’s health and safety.
The rape gets far more play than her resistance. The rape of a people–viewed in video and still images, ancient and modern–becomes conflated with her suffering. Yes it is brutal, the commentators tell us and we see it, but we do not see her, solitary and alone, friendless and abandoned, taking the ultimate courageous act of suicide. Her husband, warned of the depredation done to his wife, arrives and finds her in the act of stabbing herself.
But by this time, the commentators have lifted above the human realm to the divine. They are singing about how God looks out for all. This is a Christian addition, not at all what the ancient story signifies. Think about it: pre-Christian, the ancient story is all about moral courage and fidelity. Not about how belief in God’s forgiveness smooths away ugliness. Britten, whatever his motivations, has done the ancient story an injustice, not to mention his contemporary audience who is all too aware that Christ was not conceived when this ancient act took place.
Give me Rembrandt any day, yet I’m glad to have sat with my friend, and the quiet young man who rushed away the minute the curtain falls, saying “arriverderci,” the formal Italian good-bye. I wonder if perhaps he, like us, feels diminished by the composer’s effort to “sanctify” for Christendom what is, after all, an ancient and painful conundrum! A dilemma that is still with us, the double standard that holds a woman’s chastity hostage to male lust for dominance. We disparage Britten, but bow in homage before Rembrandt’s portrayal of this young woman, who destroys herself for a honor we cannot help but loathe, yet in her face, see what achingly painful struggle she has endured and in a painful, ultimate way surmounted.