Lucretia returns to Glyndebourne

26 Oct

I’m never quite sure what to make of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which I saw at the Glyndebourne tour on 25th October.  I still have very vivid memories of performances at ENO in 1987 (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Kathryn Harries and Jean Rigby) which left me emotionally shattered – so good that I went twice.  And nothing else has quite lived up to them.  Those were performances where the intensity and certainty of the acting and singing overcame the huge difficulties of the libretto and that rather strange ending.

At this performance, I found myself admiring and enjoying the music and the way in which the opera is paced, interested in the ideas but also quite detatched from it.  I was aware of the weaknesses of the libretto.  It isn’t so much in the structure of the opera, which is taut and works well, or the deliberately artificial ritualistic quality as its sheer wordiness and incomprehensibility.  There are the sheer sillinesses of “The oatmeal slippers of sleep/creep through the city” while there are others where the syntax is so contorted that you cannot follow what it says.  Surtitles do not help – and, in fact, make it worse because you are so busy trying to work out what the lines mean that you lose the sense of the whole.  Then there is that strange epilogue, not unlike that in Billy Budd which tries to link what goes on with a specifically Christian message.  I find it difficult to see the connection and that there’s an offensiveness about a religiosity which seeks to excuse or gloss over what has gone on or, in some way, make it more bearable.

Against this, there are some wonderful things in the piece.  I find the Male and Female chorus fascinating creations as they watch and comment on the action.  I love the music and the way in which Britten manages the tension of the army camp, the peace of Lucretia’s household, the violence of Tarquin’s journey and the calm, desperation of the tragedy.  There is a dignity and integrity about the piece which overcomes the libretto, even though that libretto means that it unlikely that it will ever be among Britten’s most popular works.

Glyndebourne gave the first performance of the opera and it makes sense for them do it again in this centenary year.  It’s probably the last of his operas that Glyndebourne will do unless the Jerwoods one day do one or other of the Parable Operas.  I can’t imagine them getting round to Gloriana or Paul Bunyan.   This was one of their typically intelligent, probing productions that approached the opera afresh and, even if Fiona Shaw’s production didn’t quite match Graham Vick’s at ENO, it made a probing, disturbing evening.

Fiona Shaw sets it in 1946 with two archeologists unearthing Roman remains and discovering the story of Lucretia.  She charts a complex relationship between them – the male chorus at times identifying with Tarquinius – even to the extent of them having sex after the rape.  I found this entirely convincing and fascinating.  She also creates a world outside – soldiers, whores and a child for Lucretia.  None of these were essential and, perhaps, they robbed some of the concentratoin on the main characters, but it was undoubtedly part of a clear vision of the piece.  What I missed was the sheer concentration and clarity of vision that Grahm Vick found.  She’s a really good opera director.

There were some marvellous performances too.  Allan Clayton, in particular, was a splendid Male Chorus – clear diction, beautifully sung and catching the ambiguity of his emotions – excited and repelled by Tarquinius.  Kate Valentine was almost his equal as the female chorus – only the occasional touch of weakness – and, again, very much took Lucretia’s part, asking what the story was doing to her husband.

Claudia Huckle displayed a lovely contralto as Lucretia and was really touching in her acting.  What I missed was the slight astringency that Janet Baker or Jean Rigby brought to this.  Duncan Rock was a virile, well-sung Tarquinius, Oliver Dunn a clear, disgruntled Junius and David Soar a dignified Collatinus.  Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a star turn as Bianca – unassuming but singing her part with quiet dignity and grace that was very moving.  Ellie Laugharne was a neat Bianca.

Nicholas Collon conducted with great assurance and the orchestra played outstandingly, I thought.

It’s not a perfect opera, but this production struck me as asking the right questions, exploring the right areas and making an audience think about what they were seeing.  I don’t think you can ask more.  I hope it has time to grow before its next outing.

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