Britten’s Rape of Lucretia a Problematical Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, The Rape of Lucretia: Soloists, Instrumental Ensemble of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / David Jones (conductor), Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 14.3.2013 (GPu)

Female Chorus: Alexandra Cowell
Male Chorus: Trystan Griffiths
Collatinus: Emyr Jones
Junius: Łukasz Karauda
Tarquinius: Jan Capiński
Lucretria: Amanda Wagg
Bianca: Kery-Lynne Dietz
Lucia: Catherine Pope

Director: Donald Maxwell
Lighting Director: Elanor Higgins

Almost seventy years after its premiere (at Glyndebourne in July of 1946) The Rape of Lucretia remains, for all the power of much of its music and many of its scenes, a problematic and partially frustrating work. It is, of course, only one in an enormously long line of treatments of the story, in poetry and prose, on the theatrical stage and in the visual arts (there is a valuable overview in Ian Donaldon’s The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations, 1982). On first encounter with the work created by Britten and librettist Ronald Duncan one is struck by the determination to present Lucretia as a kind of Christian martyr, despite her life and death occurring in a time and place which are very much pre-Christian. As Donaldson’s book makes clear there had been many previous attempts to do something very similar, not least amongst early Christian writers, such as Tertullian and St. Jerome – an approach challenged very cogently by no less a figure than St. Augustine in The City of God). Duncan/ Britten take their place in a distinguished tradition in passages such as these lines which end what is effectively a prelude to Act I;

Female Chorus

How slowly time here moves towards the date;

This Rome has still five hundred years to wait

Before Christ’s birth and death from which Time fled

To you with hands across its eyes. But here

Other wounds are made, yet still His blood is shed.

Male and Female Chorus

While we two as observers stand between

This present audience and that scene;

We’ll view these human passions and these years

Through eyes which once have wept with Christ’s own tears.

The relevance of Christ’s “birth and death” and the meaning it discovers in human suffering is also the dominant burden of the extended ‘Epilogue’ which closes the whole work, which offers an answer to the question asked (and answered) by all who stand above the body of Lucretia, and then kneel by it – (“How is it possible that she / Being so pure should die! / How is it possible that we / Grieving for her should live? / So brief is beauty. / Is this it all? It is all! It is all!”):

Female Chorus

Is it all? Is all this suffering and pain

Is this in vain?

Does this old world grow old

In sin alone?

Can we attain nothing

But wider oceans of our own tears?

[. . .]

For this did I

See with my undying eye

His warm blood spill

Upon that hill

[. . .]

Male Chorus

It is not all. Though our nature’s still as frail

And we still fall

And that great crowd’s no less

Along that road

endless and uphill;

for now

He bears our sin, and does not fall

And He, carrying all

Turns round

Stoned with our doubt and then forgives us all.

For us did He

live with such humility;

For us did He

die that we

might live

[. . .]

In His Passion

Is our hope

Jesus Christ, Saviour. He is all!

To put it its crudest, the ‘action’ of the opera has understood the meaning of human sin and suffering within one frame of reference; the two choruses insist on interpreting sin and suffering within a quite different set of parameters. The message of the work, seen and heard whole, is self-contradictory as theatrical experience. Christian didacticism and the bleak judgements of classical tragedy are ultimately irreconcilable.

In a brief programme note, director Donald Maxwell seeks to sidestep the problem: “Criticism of Ronald Duncan’s libretto and the Christian message of the Male and female chorus are well documented, but are now largely a matter of history as the considerable strengths of the piece undoubtedly outweigh the perceived weaknesses”. Unfortunately this particular problem cannot simply be put on one side as “a matter of history”, since it inescapably raises its head whenever the opera is seen or heard. Yet there are, indeed, “considerable strengths” in the piece and this student cast and orchestra articulated many of them very successfully.

Britten’s orchestral writing for his twelve-instrument ensemble is masterly, a characteristic blend of tradition and innovation. The writing is splendidly evocative despite the relative exigency of the resources drawn on, by turns beautiful and threatening (and, of course, sometimes both at once), the range of colour both vigorously vivid and tenderly delicate, (the orchestral writing reconciles opposites more successfully than the libretto does) and the student forces, benefitting from the extensive experience and unepedantic precision of conductor David Jones gave an impressive account of all its aspects.

The cast I heard was as above; in two other performances all of the main female roles were undertaken by different singers. Most of the soloists – some of whom already have some semi-professional experience – are students on the College’s MA Opera scheme. As the Male Chorus, Trystan Griffiths had a voice of powerful authority, but sometimes could have been a little more responsive to the verbal subtleties of the libretto. The Female Chorus of Alexandra Cowell had an impressive and engaging stage presence and exemplary clarity of diction, but would have been better yet for a slightly variety of colour/tone, especially in the lovely ‘She sleeps as a rose upon the night’.

Kerry-Lynne Dietz’s Bianca was an excellent piece of vocal characterisation. Dietz, although she was clearly of much the same age as her fellow performers, plausibly invested the character with the maturity and experience indicated in the libretto (the character is old enough to have been the nurse of the infant Lucretia). Much in Dietz’s singing was expressive and moving, without ever being ‘forced’ or melodramatic. Catherine Pope’s Lucia was antithetically full, both physically and vocally, of youthful vitality and (dramatically relevant) naivety.

Australian contralto Amanda Wragg found in Lucretia powerful dignity and inner seriousness. This, it was clear long before the rape, was a strong woman of strong ideas, far more than a simple ‘victim’. Especially compelling was her handling of the flower-scene with Bianca and Lucia, on the morning after her rape, in which Lucretia’s violent changes of mood (initially incomprehensible to the other two women) had a deeply convincing and troubling psychological truthfulness and plausibility. The quiet grandeur of Lucretia’s suicide and the exchanges which preceded it was very movingly sung and acted.

Of the male soloists, Łukasz Karauda’s Junius was particularly impressive. Given the two very different sides of Junius’s personality revealed in his relationships with Tarquinius (in Act I) and Collatinus (in Act II), Junius isn’t a simple character to embody, or in which to discover a convincing psychological or moral coherence. Karauda came closer to doing so than some far more experienced singers I have seen and heard undertaking the role. Jan Capiński’s Tarquinius had something of the arrogance and sheer unpleasantness that the role demands and his singing was, on the hole, successfully and purposefully varied in dynamics and colour. Emyr Jones was relatively stiff, in both voice and stage manner, as Collatinus and – on this particular evening at least – didn’t fully find means to articulate the character’s pain and dignity. The supporting cast of servants and Roman citizens was efficient and busy.

The production, overall, was relatively straightforward and made good use of a split stage. In some respects, however, one missed the curtain, of which the raising and the lowering is specified at key points in the libretto. Its presence helps to encourage the audience to see some scenes (like the spinning scene of the women in Act I) as the set-piece tableaux which Duncan and Britten had in mind. The mixture of vaguely ‘ancient’ costume and modern dress worked well as a visual confirmation of the insistence by Male and Female Choruses that this a ‘timeless’ tale rather than a ‘historical’ narrative.

One particularly nice detail came in the closing moments of the production. Earlier the two Choruses had referred, in their recitatives to ‘classical’-looking volumes. Later a smaller book, with a cross on its cover was used. At the very end of the Epilogue, the Male Chorus attempted to hand this ‘Christian’ volume to the Female Chorus, but she refused to take it from him, as if herself unable fully to accept the kind of Christian consolation offered in the Epilogue. The moment was a theatrically effective way of registering some unease about the satisfactoriness of the work’s doctrinal conclusion’ It suggested that, after all, Donald Maxwell wasn’t ready to dismiss this issue as a merely ‘historical’ problem about the work.

Glyn Pursglove