“Excuse brief scrawl, but Lucretia is patiently waiting to be raped – on my desk.” Benjamin Britten’s jest to a friend will be uncomfortable to many readers today, as indeed is the opera itself. The Rape of Lucretia may be based on hallowed classical subject matter – the atrocity led to a rebellion against the corrupt ruling class, and thus indirectly to the founding of the Roman Republic – but enacting sexual violence on stage or screen frequently comes across as exploitative (as witness the regular furores over Game of Thrones). Sydney Chamber Opera has not shied away from controversial subject matter in past productions, but much of the publicity before opening night was, in effect, an open acknowledgement of the problems of the work and a promise that an ingenious solution would be offered.

This ‘solution’ arrived at by Kip Williams and his team involved gender inversion: male characters were played by female actors lip-synching in the foreground while the male singers provided the vocals upstage, and vice versa. However, it is questionable whether the sight of Jeremy Kleeman in an off-the-shoulder dress as Lucretia scrambling away in slow motion from the menacing Jessica O’Donoghue (whose physical characterisation of Tarquinius was particularly excellent) really took the curse off the scene. Maybe the visual dissonance prevented it from being ‘normalised’. Only after the rape did the distinction collapse for Lucretia, with Anna Dowsley taking over the acting role as well as continuing to provide the singing. Visceral unpleasantness was not confined to this scene: the moment when Lucretia stabs herself involved a positive deluging of the set in blood. SCO productions have often before involved the physical besmirching of cast and stage, but here it was excessive to the point of distraction.

The doubling of the characters led to some interesting theatrical effects, such as the mirror gestures of male and female Juniuses as s/he soliloquises in drunken jealousy, and the affecting way male and female Lucretias clung to each other before Tarquinius roughly interposed between them. It certainly added another level of narrative complexity to an opera which has two narrators already (individuals known as Male Chorus and Female Chorus), whose functions include providing historical backstory, scene setting, and explication of characters’ motives.

One aspect of the work which the staging didn’t successfully resolve was the awkward Christian meta-commentary. Briefly kitting out the Male Chorus as a bishop, and staging a communion service to purple-clad acolytes directly after the violation scene felt forced. Admittedly, many of these problems go back to Britten himself, who had had asked his librettist Ronald Duncan to provide some moral reflections on the redemptive nature of suffering at the very end. And maybe, if one were being generous, the production might have been making a point about this incompatibility between the moral message and the individual tragedy we had just witnessed. At the very end, there was a hint of resistance to the religious gloss: the Female Chorus member took off her rosary beads, perhaps in a gesture of solidarity with Lucretia, who had remained on stage but was ignored during the final processional.

Many of the singers were SCO stalwarts, but whether new or returning, there was excellence throughout the entire eight-person cast. In the title role, Anna Dowsley showed how far she has come in the last few years (she is regularly cast in principal mezzo roles by Opera Australia) in a performance that was vocally superb, and dramatically engaging. Her vocal opposite, Nathan Lay, was a powerful and rich voiced Tarquinius. Jane Sheldon’s remarkable fluted high notes (without vibrato) were as ever a pleasure to hear, as was Simon Lobelson’s robust baritone. Jeremy Kleeman’s lyrical delivery matched the pathos of Collatinus’s situation in the final scene, and Jessica O’Donoghue was a fine Bianca.

The two chorus parts probably involve the greatest amount of singing over the two Acts, and luckily Andrew Goodwin and Celeste Lazarenko filled the roles with aplomb. Goodwin’s warm tenor sound had all the virtues one associates with Peter Pears (the first to play the role), such as textual clarity, but thankfully without the slightly strangled quality. Lazarenko delivered the mini aria “She sleeps as a rose” with beautiful delicacy, and elsewhere demonstrated her dramatic range.

As ever, Jack Symonds demonstrated his multi-tasking skills, bounding from podium to keyboard without missing a beat, and marshalling the instrumentalists with well-honed competence. Given the size of the orchestra (only 13 solo instruments), each player had their moment in the sun, with some of the early textures involving harp and strings, and one remarkable passage for percussion late on particularly memorable.