Music: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Ronald Duncan
Director: Fiona Shaw
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Conductor: Jack Ridley
Glyndebourne gave the premiere of Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia in 1946, starring Kathleen Ferrier in the title rôle. It hasn’t been staged again by Glyndebourne until now, the year we are celebrating 100 years since the British composer’s birth.
As part of the annual Glyndebourne Tour, now in its 45th year, Fiona Shaw’s new production provides the darker side to opera, placed alongside crowd-pleasers ‘Hansel und Gretel’ and ‘L’elisir d’amore’. More importantly, however, it challenges – presumably still just as much as when it was first performed – through sophisticated and intelligent orchestration and, of course, its bleak and difficult storyline.
The opera is part narrated, and part commented on by one male (Andrew Dickinson) and one female (Kate Valentine) chorus. As in a Greek chorus, they are part of the action without being observed by the main protagonists. They also provide a link between a modern audience and with Ancient Rome, ruled by the Estruscans, where the story takes place, 500 years BC. The comments of the chorus serve to make the audience think, and to question the senseless outcome of the story.
The realisation of the juxtaposition between the present and ancient past is created visually by Michael Devine’s set, initially a dark, flat expanse of earth which is then excavated to reveal ancient walls, marked off with a thin rope by the two chorus as at an archaeological site. The grave, first dug by the male chorus at the opening is where Lucretia is finally buried, and from where artefacts are excavated by the chorus in the closing moments.
The opening scene is set in an army camp outside Rome, where a discussion between generals Collatinus (David Soar), Junius (Oliver Dunn), and Prince Tarquinius (Duncan Rock) focuses on the infidelity of their wives while they were away fighting. All were unfaithful, except for Collatinus’ wife, Lucretia (Claudia Huckle). In a drunken row, the jealous Junius declares all women whores by nature, to which an angry Tarquinius replies that he will prove her chaste. His comment that he is ‘tired of willing women’, however, reveals the ugly side to his nature, and sets the suspense for the inevitable deed in the second act.
This chamber opera has only 12 cast on stage, usually fewer, with an orchestra of similar size in the pit. Britten’s orchestration is entirely sympathetic to the singers, and consequently every word, as well as every orchestral colour is clear as a bell. There is no weak link in this cast, with every member giving an assured and convincing performance. Andrew Dickinson and Kate Valentine as the male and female chorus are able to balance observation and helplessness at their inability to change the course of the action. Contralto Claudia Huckle in the title rôle has real strength as well as vulnerability, and baritone Duncan Rock gives a powerful performance, both vocally and physically.
It is, however, Britten’s emotive and descriptive music and orchestration that truly brings this opera to life, and special mention must go to Jack Ridley and The Glyndebourne Tour orchestral ensemble. Fiona Shaw’s production is a fitting tribute to one of Britain’s greatest composers, and surely one that won’t have to wait nearly 70 years until its next Glyndebourne revival.