Monday, March 28, 2011

Eternal recurrence: Britten's opera, Tunisia, Japan

On Friday evening Lorin Maazel conducted the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in the Castleton Festival Opera's performance of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, a story that has been rendered in prose, verse, and paint by the likes of Livy, Ovid, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Rembrandt, and Dürer. The opera tells of Tarquinius, a prince of Rome and son of the last Etruscan king, and of chaste Lucretia. Tarquinius savagely rapes Lucretia, who consequently commits suicide. These grave offenses rally the simmering Roman populace to a boil and precipitate overthrow of Etruscan rule and establishment of the Republic.

Titus Livius (Livy) wrote his version of Lucretia's story, which took place circa 500 BCE, at the time of Christ, during the same period when Ovid wrote his account. Ronald Duncan wrote the libretto for Britten's opera in the immediate wake of World War II; the opera was first performed in 1946.

In March 2011, a hellaciously volatile month around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, it was chilling to hear Duncan's words reverberate off the austere walls of UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall:

All tyrants fall though tyranny persists
Though crowds disperse the mob is never less.
For violence is the fear within us all
And tragedy the measurement of man
And hope his brief view of God.

Twenty-six hundred years ago Lucretia's violation and suicide is said to have sparked rebellion against tyranny, and establishment of a Republic that itself went on to impose order and and military domination from the region we now know as southern France, down the Italian peninsula, and south and west across the whole of North Africa.

Late last year in North Africa, a Tunisian named Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammad Bouazizi set himself afire after police confiscated the vegetable cart from which he made a livelihood, touching off mass protest in his own nation that quickly spread to Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and beyond, and continues to rage today. As reported on 17 January, a month after the Tunisian's self-immolation, "Freedom is expensive and my brother paid the price of freedom," Salem Bouazizi told Reuters by telephone from the central town of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolt began.

When Britten's opera was first performed, the world was reeling from the fresh horror of massacres from Bergen-Belsen to Babi Yar, from the Philippines to the broken and irradiated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the fiercely contested city of Stalingrad to the firebombed wreckage of Dresden, Cologne, and Hamburg.

As Maazel waved his baton on the UC Berkeley campus on Friday evening, Japan continued to struggle against the release of radiation from nuclear power plants critically damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the eastern coast of Honshu, the nation's largest island, a fortnight before. The vast forces of nature overwhelmed human craft and care to exact a toll that will be paid over years, and perhaps decades or even centuries, to come.

Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, wrote in today's issue of The New Yorker, "I have long contemplated the idea of looking at recent Japanese history through the prism of three groups of people: those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who were exposed to the Bikini tests, and the victims of accidents at nuclear facilities. If you consider Japanese history through these stories, the tragedy is self-evident. Today, we can confirm that the risk of nuclear reactors has become a reality. However this unfolding disaster ends -- and with all the respect I feel for the human effort deployed to contain it -- its significance is not the least bit ambiguous: Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes."

And if those who survive the current, still-brimming rebellions and wars and disasters "resolve not to repeat their mistakes," how long will that resolve hold?

The NY Times reported over the weekend that "The Tennessee Valley Authority opened the doors to its Browns Ferry nuclear plant on Friday to present perhaps the most detailed case so far that American reactors of the same design and vintage as the ones damaged in Japan do not face the same risks. The agency seemed to be seeking to project a balance of confidence and openness to improvements, a challenge now faced by the entire American nuclear industry as the nation watches the Japanese struggle to contain their crisis." Later in the same article: "[...] Browns Ferry is ready for 'a one-in-a-million-year flood, or however many zeroes you want to go out,' said Preston D. Swafford, the T.V.A.’s chief nuclear officer, who led a group of reporters on a three-hour tour through the plant."

However many zeros? Really? I suppose there's no hubris like the hubris of co-opted engineers.

As the final scene of Britten's opera opens, Lucretia's nurse and maid greet a magnificently dawning day, ignorant that their mistress has in the night just ending been brutally violated by Tarquinius:

Oh! What a lovely day!

Look how the energetic sun
Drags the sluggard dawn from bed,
And flings the windows wide upon the world.

Oh! What a lovely morning!

And how light the soft mulberry mist
Lifts and floats over the silver Tiber

The discord between this scene and the violence that preceded it is excruciating. The violence to come? We dread its imminence, because history has told us precisely how it will unfold.

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