The Rape of Lucretia

Britten
The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37 [Concert performance]

Male Chorus – Peter Hoare
Female Chorus – Geraldine McGreevy
Collatinus – Neal Davies
Junius – Leigh Melrose
Tarquinius – Sir Thomas Allen
Lucretia – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Bianca – Anne Marie Owens
Lucia – Malin Cristansson

Karen Jones (flute/piccolo/alto flute)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe/cor anglais)
Joy Farrell (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Sarah Burnett (bassoon)
Stephen Bull (horn)
Andrew Barclay (percussion)
Gabriella Dall’Olio (harp)
Jacqueline Shave (violin)
Katherine Shave (violin)
Jane Atkins (viola)
Stephen Orton (cello)
Stacey Watton (double bass)

Steuart Bedford (conductor/piano)


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 23 March, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

This concert was the initiative of Catherine Wyn-Rogers and given in aid of Prostate Research Campaign UK, whose Patron is The Duchess of Gloucester. The Duchess’s late arrival and a subsequent lengthy introduction from Humphrey Burton delayed the start of the performance for the best part of half-an-hour, but we were rewarded with an intense and compelling account of Britten’s first chamber opera.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel had assembled an instrumental ensemble especially for the occasion, and the musicians’ playing, individually and corporately, was unimpeachable. Indeed, Britten’s highly inventive scoring made a most vivid impression under the calmly authoritative direction of Steuart Bedford. His Britten credentials are well-known and his guiding of the opera’s musical processes bespoke deep knowledge and – just as importantly – affection for the score. Tempos throughout felt just right, and the drama unfolded inexorably from the music itself.

The cast was as good as one might reasonably expect to hear, headed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s moving assumption of the title role. One felt that a tragic fate was in store for Lucretia from the outset, with constant anxiety at her husband’s absence being a perpetual concern for her.

Following Tarquinius’s ravishing of her, Lucretia’s subsequentexpressions of anguish and self-loathing were most affectinglydelivered. Her lament, with expressive strings, and voice and cor anglais duetting, achieved an almost Bach-like poignancy through Wyn-Rogers’s warm yet plangent singing, the poise of Nicholas Daniel’s playing, and Bedford’s sensitive conducting.

Her female companions were also strongly and sympathetically portrayed by Anne Marie Owens and Malin Cristansson. Their blend in the linen-folding scene – joined by Geraldine McGreevy’s Female Chorus – was a joy to hear, with the sound acquiring an almost heady sensuousness worthy of Puccini or Strauss.

Anne Marie Owens demonstrated a maternal concern and a degree of authority, her darkly-hued voice providing apt contrast to those of the other women. The unflattering description which Ronald Duncan’s libretto has of Bianca as being “like an old ewe” was certainly not applicable in this instance.

Malin Cristansson is currently a member of the Opera School at the Royal College of Music, and her light, rapturously heady tone and eager delivery were ideally suited to Lucia’s music. Her bright soprano was a constant pleasure, and she soared effortlessly into the higher register. Together with Anne Marie Owens, Cristansson made the opening of the second scene of Act Two unusually convincing, rendering Duncan’s frequent reports on the weather and the state of the garden far less awkward-sounding than they often can be.

The male figures in the drama were just as strongly cast.

Neal Davies was a firm Collatinus, calming the macho quarrelling between Tarquinius and Junius, and being gently consoling when he returns to his wife and discovers the appalling events of the previous night.

Leigh Melrose conveyed Junius’s impetuosity through securely controlled singing. This was much to be preferred to his on-stage portrayal for English National Opera, when pitch was sometimes forsaken in the heat of the moment.

Sir Thomas Allen’s depiction of Tarquinius was most interesting.Very often, he is presented simply as a predatory figure, but Allensuggested a streak of imperious nobility – a characteristic customarily associated with princes – along with a degree of sensuality. His aria “Within the frail crucible of night” was a lyrical highlight, culminating in a beautifully placed final high note, and there was more than a hint of the seducer rather than the mere brute in his exchanges with Lucretia. These lent more than usual significance to Lucretia’s line: “In the forest of my dreams/You have always been the Tiger”.

In this opera, the key figures in setting the scene and amplifying the characters’ thoughts are the two unnamed Chorus figures.

Peter Hoare plunged us straight into the drama with an impassioned declamation in the opening recitative, and the description of Tarquinius’s ride to Rome was exhilarating. Throughout, his response to the text and its delivery was memorable, and Duncan’s sometimes-inauspicious turns ofphrase did not draw attention to themselves.

Geraldine McGreevy was just as responsive and expressive, though perhaps the role lies, in part, a little low for her. But her commitment and projection were admirable and she made a positive impact, rather than a placid one, which can happen with some singers in this role.

There was one caveat, which was that the generous acoustic of St John’s sometimes obscured full audibility of the text.

But this did not at all detract from an impressive performance which, literally, reached a climax in the thorny cross-rhythms in the interlude depicting Tarquinius’s violation of Lucretia, fully justifying the graphic description applied by the opera’s first conductor, Ernest Ansermet, who decreed that the music “has the rhythm of copulation”.

But the more gently, reflective passages were also given their full due and, altogether, this was an extremely convincing – and moving – rendition of Britten’s miraculous score.

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