Provocative and Interesting Rape of Lucretia from Glyndebourne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten: The Rape of Lucretia: Glyndebourne Touring Opera / Jack Ridley (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 15.11.13 (RB)

Male Chorus: Andrew Dickinson
Female Chorus: Kate Valentine
Collatinus: David Soar
Junius: Oliver Dunn
Tarquinius Duncan Rock
Lucretia: Claudia Huckle
Bianca: Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Lucia: Ellie Laugharne

Director: Fiona Shaw
Set Designer:  Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer Paul Anderson


The Rape of Lucretia received its premiere at Glyndebourne in 1946 and has been revived as part of the Britten centenary celebrations.  The rather over literary libretto by Ronald Duncan was based on André Obey’s play Le Viol de Lucrèce.  In keeping with post-War austerity (and one might also argue with our own times!), Lucretia is a chamber opera which requires only eight singers and 13 instrumentalists.

The story of Lucretia’s rape and its aftermath is narrated by a male and female chorus who interpret the action through a Christian prism.  The opera has always been highly problematic in that there is a suggestion Lucretia is attracted to her rapist, Tarquinius.This harrowing experience and very difficult feelings place Lucretia beyond the boundaries of conventional society and make her an outsider – a familiar figure in Britten’s operas.

In Fiona’s Shaw’s new production, the action takes place at an archaeological dig and we see the male and female chorus in fairly formal modern dress excavating the site.  Like Herodotus in his Histories they want to preserve from decay the memory of what men and women in the ancient world have done, and to put on record the grounds of their feuds.  In Act 1 a bivouac is erected on the site and we travel back in time to join a group of rough and mud spattered generals encamped just outside Rome.  The action then shifts to Lucretia’s house in Rome and a range of lighting and props are used on the site to convey the domestic setting.  I was struck by the depth of the staging and at various points we see characters emerging from or half buried in the earth.  The historical events in the opera seem to form an emotional deposit in the soil and it is only by excavating the layers of earth and accretion that we can begin to grasp the significance and truth of these events.

The action was well choreographed throughout and the cast did an excellent job in bringing Britten’s characters to life and in helping navigate our way through the moral ambiguities of this opera.  Andrew Dickinson has a very pure voice and excellent intonation and he gave us very clean, sculpted phrases that suits Britten’s music well.  This role of the male chorus was originally written for Peter Pears and I slightly missed the sense of angst and heightened tension that Pears brought to the role, but Dickinson is a very young singer and there is scope for him to develop.  Duncan Rock gave us a very virile and brutishTarquinius and he did an excellent job in depicting the military banter of the opening scene and in showing his descent from imposing general to loutish, sexual thug in the pivotal rape scene.  Kate Valentine did a wonderful job in the Act 2 lullaby She sleeps as a Rose Upon the Night which she sung in a very warm and luminous way with excellent accompaniment from flute, clarinet and horn.  Claudia Huckle gave us a very noble and dignified Lucretia and she seemed to retain the sense of dignity even after the climactic rape.  Like Kathleen Ferrier for whom the part was written, she has a wonderfully rich and highly coloured contralto voice and she was able to inject considerable dramatic power into the proceedings when required particularly in the second Act.

The dramatic elements in the second act were particularly good.  I liked the transition from watching Lucretia sleep peacefully bathed in light to the violence of the rape which takes place in the dirt of the earth.  The male and female chorus act as voyeurs and then get caught up in the Bacchanal events by having their own sexual encounter.  We as the audience are of course complicit in all this.  Lucretia’s young daughter is present in a non-singing role to witness her rape and subsequent suicide – again reflecting one of Britten’s key themes of innocence defiled.  After Lucretia’s suicide, the female chorus asks Is this All and the opera concludes that there is meaning to be found in the suffering and death of Christ.  Britten seemed unable to countenance Obey’s original existentialist idea that there is no meaning to these events or redemption for the sexual outsider.  Lucretia is like Hardy’s Tess who is more sinned against than in sinning and in the end she finds redemption.  The female characters all show us a dignified and heroic endurance in the face of adversity and a real sense of loyalty.  They are the ones who we most admire in this production.

The conductor, Jack Ridley, was attentive to balance and co-ordination throughout and he and his troupe of instrumentalists successfully conveyed the intimacy and intensity of this chamber piece and managed to evoke a superb range of sonorities.  The rest of the cast all gave exemplary performances. I was particularly struck By Ellie’s Langharne’s Lucia.

Overall, this was a highly original, interesting and provocative production from Glyndebourne.

Robert Beattie 

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