Thursday, 23 January 2020

Britten - The Rape of Lucretia (Glasgow, 2020)

Benjamin Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 2020

Lionel Friend, Jack Furness, Lauren Young, Jolyon Loy, MacArthur Alewel, Oskar McCarthy, Lea Shaw, Karina Bligh, Robin Horgan, Hasmik Harutyunyan

New Athenaeum Theatre, Glasgow - 20 January 2020

Aside from Aldeburgh of course, Britten seems to have all but vanished again from main repertory programming at opera houses, or at least his presence there seems to have returned again to not stretching much beyond the perennial hits The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and Peter Grimes. It's nice to be reminded then by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland that one of Britten's lesser performed works, the chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia still rates as one of his best and most interesting pieces.

It may have the reputation of being relatively minor, but there's much of interest in this Britten opera, not least it's narrative division between the drama of the rape of Lucretia by the Roman prince Tarquinius and the two person male/female chorus who look on and provide commentary about what is going on. As far at the RCS production is concerned there's room and perhaps need for developing on this structure since its purpose is to provide a Christian outlook on pre-Christian attitudes towards women, war and violence. Clearly looking around at Christian nations today and their behaviour in those areas the idea that there is that much distance between them is certainly something that needs to be challenged.

As a committed pacifist and conscientious objector writing this work during the war, evidently that is a distinction and a discussion that Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan intended to raise, but a production should always look for ways of bringing that message up to date and reflect the world around us. In matters of war, with the use of modern technology nations and armies are even capable of worse atrocities, taking torture, rape, genocide and destruction to a new and increasingly dehumanised level. The RCS production, as well as seeking to implicate the modern day soldiers in the rape of Lucretia, also seeks to simultaneously show the distancing of emotions where murder and massacre can take place at a physical and emotional distance, flying a drone or pressing a button.

The opening scene in Jack Furness's production finds a good way to highlight this, presenting a triage unit in a military hospital in a contemporary war zone. The army padre staff steps into a side cubicle with a female nurse and begins the story of Tarquinius and Lucretia. Gradually, the walls of the room - with the help of the padre - close in on the Roman story to the point that Lucretia is pressed into a narrow space. The idea of course to implicate the male and female chorus in what happens, but the RCS production takes it a little further than that, with the male chorus beginning to subject the nurse to the same sense of aggression, pride, entitlement, or whatever is that permits Tarquinius to press his attentions on Lucretia.

Just what it is exactly is the other interesting point in Britten's version of The Rape of Lucretia. I'm not sure that the RCS production illuminates that in any way, but it doesn't necessarily need to either. The actions, the war situation, the questions of violence in nature, in the male nature - in this case even a military priest - is unquestionably a factor in what occurs, and the essential point is that it occurs regardless of whether it's in pre-Christian times or in Christian nations. It's connected to the same urge that drives men and nations to go to war, and making you question this is more important than providing answers.

What is also vitally important in this opera is the musical performance. Britten's chamber operas are perfectly pared down, every instrument audible and contributing to the mood and meaning of the work. The thirteen musicians of the RCS orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend were simply superb, every exposed detail of the playing and interaction of the instruments perfectly audible in the New Athenaeum Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.

The singing was also perfect, soprano Lauren Young in particular outstanding as Lucretia. Robin Horgan's Male Chorus blessed with that perfect clear English diction and tenor voice so well suited to Britten, forming an intriguing and unsettling pairing in this production with Hasmik Harutyunyan's Female Chorus. There were lovely performances also from a soaring Karina Bligh and Lea Shaw as Lucretia's handmaidens Lucia and Bianca. The three Romans - Oskar McCarthy as Junius, Jolyon Loy as Tarquinius and MacArthur Alewel as Collatinus - all showed distinct qualities that matched Britten's requirements to highlight the characteristics of the three aggressive behaviour.

Links: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland