OPERA NEWS - The Rape of Lucretia
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The Rape of Lucretia

Glyndebourne Festival

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Lucretia (Christine Rice) and Lucia (Louise Alder) in Fiona Shaw's production of Britten's Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne
© Robbie Jack 2015
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Lucretia's Female Chorus (Kate Royal) and Male Chorus (Allan Clayton)
© Robbie Jack 2015
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Junius (Michael Sumuel) and Tarquinius (Duncan Rock)
© Robbie Jack 2015

Benjamin Britten’s first chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, had its world premiere at Glyndebourne in 1946, with Ernest Ansermet conducting a cast that included Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Otakar Kraus and Joan Cross. Albert Herring joined it at the same address the following year, but thereafter Britten fell out with the Sussex festival.  With Pears and director Eric Crozier, Brittten founded a festival of his own at Aldeburgh, which made significant use of his own English Opera Group.

It was not until 2013 that Glyndebourne — astonishingly, an entirely Britten-free zone between 1947 and 1981 — finally returned to Lucretia, which it staged on its annual autumn tour. On July 5, the work was once again included in the repertory of the Festival itself, in the same production by Irish actor-director Fiona Shaw that had made its debut on tour two years earlier.

Over the decades since its creation, however, the issue of rape has made an opera with that crime as its central dramatic event a more controversial work than ever before. It was greatly to the credit of Shaw, working here with set designer Michael Levine and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, that in this production the whole issue was handled with such intelligence and sensitivity — though it was far from being sidelined or understated. The result was unusually complex in its presentation of the central characters and their interactions in a piece that sometimes seems as if its very subject might put it beyond the pale these days. Happily, that was not the case here.

In the original, two modern characters — a Male and Female Chorus — comment on (and at times seem to encourage) the action of a piece set in Ancient Rome in pagan times from a later, Christian perspective. In Shaw’s production, they were presented as two archaeologists of the period around the time of the opera’s composition working on an ancient site and retelling a story that they were — quite literally at times — uncovering. The two roles were sung respectively by tenor Allan Clayton, forthright and clear, if not ideally nuanced in his delivery of the text, and Kate Royal, whose soprano — slightly diminished these days — nevertheless conveyed the text with skill and some authority. 

Lucretia was sung by Christine Rice, whose rich, mature mezzo gave her character stature, nobility and expressive power. She was offered solid support by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the contralto-like depths of whose mezzo lent Bianca a deep maternal warmth; and by the lucid light soprano of Louise Alder as flibbertigibbet Lucia. On the male side, Matthew Rose’s rolling bass emblematized the caring but ultimately ineffectual Collatinus, Duncan Rock’s firm baritone supplied sufficient vocal presence to match his dominating physicality as Tarquinius, and Michael Sumuel’s variegated bass-baritone colored in the ambiguity of the devious Junius, who promotes the crime carried out by Tarquinius for his own political ends. 

Britten scored the piece for just thirteen players, a force identical to those used in the later Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw (1954); on this occasion, members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (one of Glyndebourne’s two resident ensembles) showed an absolute command of writing that is both virtuosic and inevitably exposed. Leo Hussain conducted a performance that was exemplary in its precision and powerfully expressive in its dynamic sense of dramatic propulsion. spacer 


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