Glyndebourne’s Lucretia returns

4 Aug

I admired Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia almost two years ago and it was good to revisit the show on 4th August as part of its Festival outing.  Even more strongly cast than the tour version, there had also been time to think further about the piece and develop the ideas.

My frustration with the libretto remains.  Even in the programme the cast were describing it as “of its time”.  I think it’s far worse than that.  It’s not just the frankly offensive Christian message at the end of the piece but the sheer ghastliness of the writing – images that make little sense, convoluted syntax and lines that seem to contradict each other.  The formal structure is quite interesting: the text vile.  As I came away, I decided that the only way to make it work would be for someone to translate it into German and perform it in that language with some hugely simplified surtitles.  I wonder how long opera companies will continue to perform it.

And yet the music is so wonderful.  There are passages where you feel that Britten never surpassed.  At this performance I was particularly struck by the oboe solo following the arrival of Collatinus in Act II.  That was fabulously well played and intensely moving.  Britten gets the atmosphere perfectly – that sultry, over-heated night at the army tents, the glory of the morning and sheer excitement of the ride to Rome.  Simply as a piece of music, this is a gem.

And it was very well performed.  It was a joy to hear the soloists of the LPO play so beautifully – I don’t think I’ve heard the piece played so intelligently and hauntingly.  Leo Hussain conducted it with huge confidence and, I thought, paced it pretty much perfectly.  My one complaint was that I felt that the ensemble before the final commentary of the Choruses could have been bigger – the feeling should be akin to the interlude in Wozzeck after the death of Marie and should leave you feeling drained and shattered.  Here it didn’t quite.  I think that was partly to do with a very quiet chamber-ish approach: soloists rarely forced and created an intimate, conversational atmosphere that felt right – but you have to get the power of that question “is it all?” a bit more strongly, I feel.

Fiona Shaw’s production is intelligent and gets some outstanding performances out of her cast.  At this performance, however, I was left wondering whether she didn’t try a bit too hard, whether the very detailed relationship and involvement of the Choruses wasn’t taken a step too far and whether this didn’t detract from the concentration on Lucretia herself.  Isn’t it slightly more chilling if they aren’t involved?  Either way, it felt like a rather busy production and just missed the cathartic intensity that I still remember from Graham Vick’s ENO production.

The cast had been significantly strengthened.  Retained from the tour welre Allan Clayton’s intelligently sung Male Chorus – I don’t think that he’s done anything better, words were clear and the variation and intensity in his singing was hugely impressive – only Anthony Rolfe-Johnson has bettered him, in my experience – Duncan Rock’s handsome and rather stupid Tarquinius and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Bianca.  The latter has been singing this since 1993 and gave one of those lovely performances that seemed absolutely assured and, in its way, perfect.

Christine Rice was a marvelous Lucretia coming into her own after the rape and bringing a quiet desperation that was intensely moving.  I’m not sure that even Jean Rigby managed to plumb the depths of self-disgust that Miss Rice managed: I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance from her.  Kate Royal was luxury casting as the Female Chorus and I loved the sheer ease with which she delivered the music.  This was really intelligent, beautiful singing.  Matthew Rose was an outstanding Collatinus with the right warmth of voice, intelligence and anger and acted perfectly.  I remember him and Lucretia sitting together after the rape, side by side – an unforgettable image of tenderness.  Only Daniel Sumuel struck me as slightly disappointing as Junius – the sound not as powerful as I’d have liked.

So there were wonderful things here – an inquiry, intelligent production that had moved on in the two years and gained depth.  It almost convinced me that this was a great opera – until Duncan’s text ruined it all.


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