The Rape of Lucretia
Boylan, Connolly, Nelson, Wyn-Rogers; Ainsley, Maltman, Melrose, Bayley; ENO Orchestra, Daniel. Production: McVicar. Opus Arte OA 1123D, 120 mins., subtitled
In 2014, what to make of The Rape of Lucretia? On the one hand, the work is a marvel of compositional economy. Four female singers, four male, and an orchestra of only thirteen players present a piece of music in which every note matters. There's also Ronald Duncan's enjoyable poetry ("Here the thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light"), set by Britten for maximum effect. Even the sketches for the original scenic design by John Piper, reproduced in a beautiful commemorative book in 1948, reward close study. On the other hand, the main plot device is — well, a rape. Compounding the sickening story, the victim feels so dishonored that she sees suicide as her single option, even though her husband offers her nothing but immediate and pure compassion. Worst of all, the two narrators want us to believe that we should take heart because in only five hundred years Christianity will come along and make things better.
Certainly David McVicar's production, filmed at Aldeburgh in 2001, has bought into the concept. His handsome Tarquinius, Christopher Maltman, is shirtless and buff for the rape scene. An overhead mirror flies in, as if for a cooking demonstration, so everyone can get a good look. Maltman sings "Within this frail crucible of light" as beautifully as it could ever be sung, which somehow makes things worse. Sarah Connolly is a Lucretia of classical poise, particularly in her outburst "Is this the Prince of Rome" and her narrative "Last night Tarquinius ravished me," forty-five iterations of the same profound low B. (She would be a dream as Britten's Phaedra.) Orla Boylan, as the Female Chorus, is nothing less than an advertisement for exquisite singing. She and Connolly intertwine their voices in beguiling fashion in the second scene. Conductor Paul Daniel misses some of the tremendous atmosphere in the opening of the camp scene but finds it all in Boylan's solo with bass flute and muted strings. He builds the final scene, which moves from spun-sugar pastels to keen anticipation, powerfully. All of the singers have sung English so much more intelligibly in other circumstances that one can only assume that the Aldeburgh venue was intractable as a recording studio.
But does even a well-sung production justify producing this opera? In a director's interview, which turns out to be only two minutes long, McVicar lobs a misshapen trial balloon that, in the context of World War II, "longing for some redemptive force, which could in an irrationally miraculous way take sins of humankind away in the context of that time, is not such an alien notion and is a more necessary notion." Even for the most ardent Britten fan, it's not enough. Should we not put this opera aside until we know what to do with it? Britten's church parables are woefully underappreciated. John Mark Ainsley is an excellent Male Chorus here (though over-directed into hyperactivity by McVicar). Let's start with Ainsley in Curlew River, a Britten piece that really does tell us something about redemption.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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