The Royal Opera at its very best: a new generation of singers excel in The Rape of Lucretia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, The Rape of Lucretia: Soloists, Aurora Orchestra / Corinna Niemeyer (conductor). Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden, 13.11.2022. (CC)

Anne Marie Stanley (Lucretia) Carolyn Holt (Bianca) © Camilla Greenwell

Director – Oliver Mears
Designer – Annemarie Woods
Lighting – D. M. Wood
Movement director – Sarita Piotrowski
Fight director – Bret Yount
Intimacy direction – Intimacy On Set (lead, Ita O’Brien)

Lucretia – Anne Marie Stanley
Tarquinius – Jolyon Loy
Collatinus – Anthony Reed
Junius – Kieran Rayner
Lucia – Sarah Dufresne
Bianca – Carolyn Holt
Female Chorus – Sydney Baedke
Male Chorus – Michael Gibson

It has been a while since I reported on a Britten The Rape of Lucretia2003, in fact, when Dame Sarah Connelly took the title role at the Barbican Theatre, with Christopher Maltman as Tarquinius. Chronologically, this 1946 two-act opera comes immediately after Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw (its relevance will be made clear later) was to come in 1954.

Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan (who based it on André Obey’s play Le Viol de Lucrèce) construct a remarkable edifice. The use of Male and Female Chorus (actually each only one voice) is a masterstroke. The opera is set in Roman times according to the libretto; Oliver Mears gives it a contemporary setting in a modern, sparse flat – the one set is kept constant throughout, and Annemarie Woods’s design seems perfect: almost clinically clean, somewhat minimalist, it is like a blank canvas that will eventually be painted with blood. The idea of Roman armies, generals and so on is mapped onto contemporary army dress; and with that, the attendant machismo and all that that entails – including feelings of invincibility of soldiers and their resultant actions, be it wanton drinking, posturing or, in this extreme case, rape.

For this production, Mears worked with an all-female creative team to create a remarkably powerful experience. We are presented by a light curtain which is drawn aside and closed at various points by the Choruses. By having the Choruses not only observe from the stage sides but also remain active onstage whilst the drama is ongoing is fascinating – there is almost the feeling that they are the ghosts of The Turn of the Screw. The choruses themselves are shown as a Christian couple, with Female Chorus wearing what looked to be a crucifix around her neck. As ‘observers’ they cannot interrupt the flow of events, only comment on it – thereby creating an additional layer between the audience and the drama itself, allowing for some level of emotional separation.

The idea of a static set means lighting expertise is a paramount requirement, and D. M. Wood is an expert with shadow. It is in this space we meet our singers, but before we do it is worthwhile identifying the one great constant in this performance. Diction was immaculate throughout from all participants, something that is so rarely encountered. Surtitles were effectively rendered useless, and that was a joy in itself.

Jolyon Loy (Tarquinius) © Camilla Greenwell

Of the characters, two, Sydney Baedke and Jolyon Loy, are Britten Pears Young Artists; the remainder of the cast are members of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker scheme. As Lucretia, Anne Marie Stanley owns the stage (she covered Thurza in Glyndebourne’s recent The Wreckers, incidentally); her voice is powerful and yet can usher in the most remarkable vulnerability and, indeed, emotional pain as the work hurtles towards its tragic conclusion.  British baritone Loy is the most macho of Tarquiniuses, a huge brute of a man who convinces us that he is led by base instinct; and yet his voice is flexible and capable of a multitude of shades. A successful actor has to make us dislike this character, and at that, Loy excelled.

Much thought had clearly gone into the casting. The Male and Female Choruses (Baedke and Michael Gibson respectively) worked supremely well together, both vocally and dramatically. Carolyn Holt’s full-voiced Bianca was a joy, but the real discovery surely has to be the Lucia of Canadian soprano Sarah Dufresne. With real stage presence and a light, clear voice that was never once insubstantial, she was the ideal casting in an opera that was already cast to the very highest levels (she joins the Jette Parker scheme in 2022/23 after a spell at Montréal’s L’Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal). She will, I believe, be a vital addition to the scheme.

Kieran Rayner was a fine, strong Junius; Anthony Reed as Collatinus revealed a beautifully focused voice and, more, convincing expressions of continued love in the second act. The final moments of the opera were as heart-wrenching as anything on the main stage – somehow the small forces seem more of a reduction down to essentials than any sort of compromise.

While the subject matter of the opera is stark and brutal, it should be firmly stated that Britten’s music is magnificently variegated – there are moments of the utmost beauty, both in terms of luminous scoring and in solo contributions (most notably that poignant, and extended, cor anglais solo). This brings us to the orchestra and its conductor, Corinna Niemeyer, currently Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestra de Chamber du Luxembourg. Niemeyer’s sensitivity to Britten’s scoring was as impeccable as her sense of directionality – she clearly understands the work’s larger canvas, which lent the dénouement a particular musical power. There were moments of illumination, too – a particularly Stravinskian tinge to the chord progressions at the repeated declarations of ‘Good night’, for example, like a processional to the gallows. Remarkable – as is everything about this production and performance. This is not only the Royal Opera at its very best – it shows great hope for the new generation of singers coming into their own right now.

Colin Clarke

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