The Rape of Lucretia – Opera in two Acts and a Prologue to a libretto by Ronald Duncan after André Obey’s play Le viol de Lucrèce [sung in English with English surtitles]
Lucretia – Anne Marie Stanley
Bianca – Carolyn Holt
Lucia – Sarah Dufresne
Tarquinius – Jolyon Loy
Collatinus – Anthony Reed
Junius – Kieran Rayner
Female Chorus – Sydney Baedke
Male Chorus – Michael Gibson
Oliver Mears – Director
Annemarie Woods – Designer
DM Wood – Lighting Designer
Sarita Piotrowski – Movement Director
Bret Yount – Fighting Director
Ita O’Brien – Intimacy Director
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 13 November, 2022
Venue: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
Such is the sensitive nature of the topic at the centre of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (1945-6, revised 1947) that it is couched more as a worthy historical narrative, than an intensely wrought domestic drama such as Othello. That seems to account for the somewhat outdated tone of some of the libretto with its platitudes and its anachronistic reflection by the two Chorus members on the need of redemption under the Christian dispensation – a religious system that didn’t come into being until five centuries or so after the episode in Roman history recounted. The straightforward retelling of the narrative by the Chorus also makes the work somewhat clunkier and flatter as music drama than it could be – a problem not entirely dispelled in Oliver Mears’s new production, with the Male Chorus holding a file of papers for much of the diegesis, like a school master giving a history lesson (for instance, he holds up a family tree when explaining the genealogy of the Etruscan kings holding sway over Rome).
The #MeToo movement has shown that sexual and domestic violence against women particularly, remains all too common, whilst the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates once more that war always occasions the physical violation not only of enemy combatants, but also of innocent civilians. The production is therefore largely successful in eschewing any grand historical commentary upon the drama by setting it entirely in a domestic context, in what looks like a plain, contemporary suburban drawing room (though it could also be argued that it loses any epochal dimension as a result, seeing that the episode is an etiology for how the Roman republic came into being after the monarchy was discredited). Tarquinius, Collatinus, and Junius are soldiers who could belong to the British army, or any other nation’s army today, reminding us how war – wherever and whenever it is waged – always entails the incursion of its horrors into everyday life.
The staging also tellingly emphasises the point made in the work that Collatinus’s standing among the population is enhanced by his wife, Lucretia’s reputation for chastity (prompting Tarquinius’s jealous desire to eliminate that threat to his authority) by showing how the lives of such leaders play out in the prurient eye of the media. Her status as a celebrity is demonstrated in the appearance of a newspaper article about her status as a public icon, which is underlined by the portrait of her and Collatinus as a happily domesticated couple that is hung on the wall in a later scene (though, somewhat confusingly, she wears the same lilac dress as her servant Lucia on stage in Act One). After her suicide, Junius photographs her dead body – presumably for consumption by public media in turn.
The disturbing possibility arises that the two Chorus members are present to give a similarly disinterested, journalistic account of what they have seen, that impression made by Sydney Baedke and Michael Gibson’s cool and precise enunciation of their words at times. But their impassioned performances for the most part, and their apparent sitting in mourning at home for the Prologue seem to indicate that they are, at some level, more deeply interwoven with the tragic drama. However they are to be interpreted, it is clear that they play a more dramatically involved role than is otherwise implied by the Chorus members’ stilted contributions on paper.
Anne Marie Stanley gives a darkly eloquent and dignified account as Lucretia from the start, modulating into artfully controlled brokenness in her vocal line after her rape, all the time contrasting powerfully with the affecting naiveté projected by Sarah Dufresne and Carolyn Holt as her servants Lucia and Bianca, as they decorate her room with flowers, and make anodyne observations on how lovely the day is, on the morning after the heinous crime. Collatinus, Junius, and Tarquinius all convey the soldiers’ loutish, boorish behaviour, and macho (and misogynistic) rivalry as they comment upon the (in)fidelity of the women they have left behind in Rome while away on military campaign. Musically Anthony Reed, Kieran Rayner, and Jolyon Loy express not so much an overt brute force as an insidious lustre, particularly the latter as he hovers over the sleeping Lucretia and insinuates himself into her dreams, making her believe that at this point she is embracing her husband.
The Aurora Orchestra with Corinna Niemeyer sustain a potently tense atmosphere throughout, despite also clearly pointing up the masterly strokes of instrumental colour which Britten writes into the score. In consequence, the work makes all the more striking an impression for the intense depictions of the relationships among the characters than if the performance merely made sensational musical effects for their own sake. That also makes up for any lack of impact or coherence in the production as it unfolds.
Further performances to November 22