The Rape of Lucretia
Male Chorus Timothy Robinson
Female Chorus Orla Boylan
Collatinus Clive Bayley
Junius Leigh Melrose
Tarquinius Christopher Maltman
Lucretia Sarah Connolly
Bianca Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Lucia Mary Nelson
Members of the English National Opera Orchestra
Director David McVicar
Revival directed by Ari Edelson
Designer Yannis Thavoris
Lighting designer Paule Constable
Lighting revived by Kevin Sleep
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 8 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London
Although not often referred to in the same breath, Britten and Verdi have one distinctive feature – at least – in common. That is, each of their operas has their own characteristic sound, or ’tinta’. In The Rape of Lucretia, Britten’s first chamber opera, this is supplied – astonishingly – by an orchestra of a mere twelve players and the sonorities Britten evokes from it are truly miraculous. The claustrophobic atmosphere of Lucretia’s dwelling, the hot and sticky Roman night, alongside the characters’ reactions and feelings are all most tellingly depicted.
These evocations were in the sure hands of the ENO players under Music Director Paul Daniel, who also played the piano in the recitatives. The orchestral playing was extremely fine throughout, with only a moment of discomfort in the cor anglais’s intonation that accompanies Lucretia’s final expressions of anguish.
As the Male Chorus, who starts the opera with an urgent recitation of the Etruscans’ oppression of the Romans, Timothy Robinson proved to be a compelling narrator. In bearing and tone, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Peter Pears, the creator of the role, with clear diction and word colouring. If the top of his voice is not ideally free, this is a minor reservation given the conviction of his performance. During the first scenes, Robinson threatened to become a main protagonist in the drama since, in this production, the Chorus characters are very much integrated into the action, rather than standing apart, as originally envisaged by Britten and Ronald Duncan. Later on, the Interlude depicting Tarquinius’s ride to Rome was headily exhilarating, and the spoken passage as Tarquinius approaches his intended victim was eerily insinuating.
Orla Boylan was similarly convincing as the Female Chorus who is given rather less to do than her tenor counterpart, and so spends quite a lot of time – in this production – standing about.But Boylan never lacked focus and concentration, and her facial reactions were apt and characterful. She has a lovely and even tone across the vocal range, and her blending with the three other women in the linen-folding scene was absolutely exquisite.
The two soldiers, plus Tarquinius the Prince of Rome, begin the action proper, and they were immediately impressive in fleshing out their characters. Clive Bayley’s dignified portrayal of Lucretia’s husband was matched by a sonorous bass quality, which he has not always produced in other roles. Leigh Melrose conveyed Junius’s impetuosity, but he needs to guard against barking out more forceful passages – a feature I noted in his depiction of Melot in ENO’s Tristan and Isolde.
Christopher Maltman positively oozed tension and sexual danger right from the start. His mellifluous tone was put to good effect in the aria “In this frail crucible of night”, whose sensuality suggests a more ambiguous personality than a mere brute. His scene with Lucretia prior to his ravishing her was quite uncomfortable, with Maltman and Sarah Connolly exposing their characters’ conflicting emotions to the raw.
As Lucretia, Connolly presented a noble, self-contained woman, fretting at the frequent absences from her husband she is obliged to endure, and full of self-loathing following her night with Tarquinius. Her final lament had dignity as well as regret and the sense of a tragic, fated destiny. Her warm tone fitted Britten’s lines comfortably.
Her companions were equally well portrayed, with Mary Nelson as an eager Lucia and Catherine Wyn-Rogers demonstrating maternal concern as Lucretia’s devoted nurse. Their interaction in the flower-gathering duet on the morning after Tarquinius’s visit was rapturous, and even some of the insistent weather reports of Duncan’s libretto were not unduly awkward.
David McVicar’s production does not pay heed to the specifics of time and place. The soldiers’ dress being contemporary suggesting, sadly, the universality of the concept of innocence being corrupted and, ultimately, destroyed. Although vastly different from the original production, this was an effective updating which did not detract or distract from the essence of the opera – not something that can always be said of such interpretations.
If one occasionally wanted a harder edge to the orchestral sound (witness Britten’s own recording, or the abridged version conducted by Reginald Goodall in 1948 with many of the original cast), then compensation was to be had in the audibility of the cast.
Indeed, this was an intense, and thoroughly absorbing and convincing realisation of Britten’s opera, perfectly suited to the acoustic and space of the Barbican Theatre. The audience responded with remarkably silent and rapt attention throughout – an increasingly rare occurrence.