Benjamin Britten - The Rape of Lucretia
English National Opera, Aldeburgh Festival 2001
Paul Daniels, David McVicar, John Mark Ainsley, Orla Boylan, Clive Bayley, Leigh Melrose, Christopher Maltman, Sarah Connolly, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Mary Nelson
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Although it's come late in the year that also celebrated the work of Verdi and Wagner, the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten has done much to consolidate and even raise the reputation of Britain's greatest composer, and in the process highlight some unjustly neglected works. If Richard Jones was unable to salvage the reputation of Gloriana however, it must be hoped that this belated release of David McVicar's 2001 production of the Rape of Lucretia for the English National Opera, recorded by the BBC at the Aldeburgh Festival, will bring this more deserving work to the attention of a wider audience. The Rape of Lucretia is a work of extraordinary intensity and depth that sees Britten at his most distinctive and inspired.
Following the full orchestration of Britten's first opera Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia marks something of a rethinking of approach to opera that would have a significant impact on the style of much of the composer's later dramatic works. There appears to be a more overt religious Christian element here that one sees echoes of in the Canticles and in the Church Parables, but Britten's interest in the subjects of these works would appear to go beyond Christian parable towards less clearly defined and somewhat more ambiguous moral issues. What is most interesting in The Rape of Lucretia however is Britten approach to the scoring of the work, not only reducing the orchestration to allow the instruments greater individual voices, but also striving to find a unique expression in them that doesn't always adhere to expected conventional dramatic writing.
The subject of The Rape of Lucretia then is a powerful one which, when combined with Britten's musical scoring of it, is almost harrowing in its intensity. All the more so when it's given a strong interpretation and that is certainly the case in this production. On the surface, the plot and the sequence of events that lead up to the event seem to be as direct and straightforward as the title of the work itself. A group of Roman generals have made a drunken bet over the fidelity of their wives and unadvisedly tested it as far as to confirm their own unenlightened views. Junius in particular is bitter about the outcome, remarking to Tarquinius that "Women are all whores by nature" that "Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity" and that they are only chaste when they aren't tempted. He's not beyond recognising the hypocrisy of his position either, noting that "men defend a woman's honour when they would lay seige to it themselves".
There is however one exception to the rule it seems - Lucretia, the virtuous wife of Collatinus. Tarquinius, the "Prince of Rome" however refuses to accept that she is any different from the rest and goes out of his way to prove it. He invites himself into her home, visits her bedroom at night and forces himself upon her. As harrowing an ordeal as this is for Lucretia, what proves to be more despairing and leads to her taking her own life is the reaction of her husband when he learns of what has occurred and the shame of what other people will say about her. On the surface then, the story seems a familiar operatic one - the defilement of the chastity of an innocent woman that one finds throughout bel canto and opera semiseria works (Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix or Rossini's Sigismondo) with the added piety of Schumann's only opera work, the magnificent Genoveva.
Having already written Peter Grimes however, it's not difficult to see in The Rape of Lucretia themes that preoccupy Britten throughout his musical career and even in his personal life relating to the corruption of innocence. Lucretia, for Britten however is about much more than just the defilement of a woman's saintly virtue, but touches on the nature of society and the values that it assigns to men and women. And at the heart of it, there's the question of violence, how it can be seen as acceptable in certain circumstances - the Roman-Etruscan war forms more than a backdrop for the work - or at least excused in the case of it being part of the nature of man. War is a subject of great importance to Britten and The Rape of Lucretia would seem to question whether this is necessarily the case, or whether pacifism isn't truer to the better nature of mankind.
It's commented on specifically by the 'Male Chorus', a single singer who represents one of the more interesting means of expression that Britten makes use of in this opera. The Male Chorus and the Female Chorus are omniscient overseerers who are witness to the events, but who exist outside of time and the period in a way that allows them to consider the events from a later 'Christian' perspective. The Male Chorus observes that "For violence is the fear within us all / And tragedy the measurement of man / And hope his brief view of God". It's an important device that allows the composer a wider perspective and a contemporary relevance, and not insignificantly, it's a device that has been used recently in a very similar way by Martin Crimp and George Benjamin in their very contemporary view of the medieval storyline of Written on Skin.
It's Britten's musical arrangements however that are just as innovative, distinctive, modern and relevant. The reduced orchestration highlights the expression of individual instruments and heightens the dramatic tone and tension of the subject. Rarely does the music rely on any conventional signposting that tells you how to react to the drama, but instead it fulfils the primary function of music in opera by exploring below the surface and revealing other depths. It's beautiful and haunting, underpinning the drama in Britten's own developing idiomatic language, but it also expresses convictions that are important to the composer in relation to his own life, views that were out of place with the accepted conventions of prevailing social attitudes of the time.
How much David McVicar's direction contributes to the sheer power and intensity that comes across in this production is hard to judge. The set itself is relatively straightforward, unadorned and more or less period. One directorial choice that goes against the original specifications is in how McVicar involves the Male and Female Chorus more in the action. Not quite interacting with it, but certainly having more of a presence, and this works well, as it is an important feature of the opera. If it's difficult to point to any specific directorial choice that evidently has an impact on the performance, what is clear nonetheless is the McVicar gets the mood exactly right and his direction of the singers and the acting is what ultimately makes this a truly great production.
Which of course means that you need fine singers who can also act in order to do it justice. The cast here is great, although not all of them are in their prime. Sarah Connolly is still terrifically good, it's just that she's an even better singer now. Christopher Maltman too has also matured into a better singer, but he has always been a good actor is performance here is, if anything, just a little too creepy and disturbing. In this work however, that isn't a bad thing at all. John Mark Ainsley is at his best here as the Male Chorus and with Orla Boylan good as his counterpart, the Female Chorus. All the roles really are just terrific and the measure of the success of the production is that it's about as intense, well-sung, painfully well-acted performance of The Rape of Lucretia as you could wish for, a perfect match for Britten's remarkable score, which is revealed in all its brilliance here by Paul Daniels.