FringeReview UK 2018
Directors Julia Burbach and (music director) Peter Selwyn programme Britten’s 1946 chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia. Twelve instrumentalists of the Orpheus Sinfonia fit into the upper gallery of Studio 1. Bettina John’s design confines itself to a bed and pre-set sleeping Lucretia. White bedclothes, with serving-women circling in dusky pink round white-clad Lucretia. White gives on to brick-red cloth blocks rearranged at cardinal points in the narrative. The two chorus seem black-clad, invisible spirits. Rob Price’s lighting deploys subtle primaries: muted neon blue behind, and with a reflecting panel sudden spotlit white.
Though #Me Too hadn’t been thought of when directors Julia Burbach and Peter Selwyn decided to programme Britten’s 1946 chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia. But Trump was already invented and by the time this work entered rehearsal its burning relevance surely catapaults this work as the go-to for operas on sexual harassment, misogyny and violence against women. Misogyny because from the start the Roman nobility with their Etruscan king Tarquinius spy on their wives and find them having affairs with masseurs and gambling.
All save one. How Ronald Duncan’s libretto ratchets from this vicious laddishness to overtly Christian noises – in 510BC too – is one of the wonders Britten negotiates. It’s the edgiest opera, the most disturbing even he ever wrote. Cleaving tight to the singing-lines, it’s strikingly unlike anything he wrote either till very late on. It almost sounds like a contemporary opera Grimeborn commissioned. And we need it more than ever.
The libretto’s bitingly good, occasionally embarrassing and freighted with post-war Christian strivings (think Auden and earlier, Eliot, Waugh, Greene). Only occasionally embarrassing as after the premiere Britten revised the score enough for his estate to suppress a glorious Dutch radio broadcast with Kathleen Ferrier as Lucretia pinning everyone, including Peter Pears, to the walls. Uneasy with some of the chorus’ exhortations (for a husband not to be sympathetic to his ravished wife, lest it bring on suicide, mmm) Britten wisely cut some bars, notably rewriting the first scene. A week after the Dutch (October 4th), a BBC performance was preserved – and even in between Britten had made changes! By 1947 it changed again; some of the sprach-history lesson’s being clipped from the chorus is just one way Britten tightened up.
In the original line-up you get soprano (Lucia), mezzo (Bianca), and Ferrier’s own contralto for Lucretia. That vocal distinction is extinct. Today’s Lucretia has to be a mezzo with dark resource. Bethan Langford delivers.
But what we have is Britten’s uneasy masterpiece. Uneasy thematically and with little of the lyric heft of Peter Grimes, it’s miniaturist, wholly vocally led, where memorable instrumental flickers echo voices. Some recall Grimes, more look forward to Billy Budd (the ‘Billy in the Darbies’ scene) and particularly that other chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw. There’s a nervous flute accompanying various male comments, a six-note harp glissandi underscoring every note of tension like toothache (starting with jealous Junius’ inflaming Tarquinius), and a haunted four-note descending figure in the queasy ‘goodnight’ ensemble echoing Claggart’s evil credo in Budd. The harp plays an imaginative continuo role you’d expect in a harpsichord or piano, as in Turn of the Screw. Here it gives off a malign charm and notes of false hope at dawn.
It’s a riveting, horrible story; but this lucid narrative – fantastically crystalline here – has to be listened to at every turn as the legend’s drenched in detail. In its 100 minutes, there’s virtually no let-up for audience let alone singers in some long melismatic yawp.
Music director Selwyn has performed miracles of reduction to squeeze the twelve instrumentalists of the Orpheus Sinfonia into the upper gallery of Studio 1. And the chamber orchestra’s marvellously clear, clearer than any recording I’ve heard. Bettina John’s design confines itself to a bed and pre-set sleeping Lucretia. White bedclothes, with serving-women Claire Swale’s darting young Bianca and Katharine Taylor-Jones’ maternal Bianca, circle in dusky pink round white-clad Lucretia. White gives on to brick-red cloth blocks rearranged at cardinal points in the narrative. The two chorus (Natasha Jouhl, Nick Pritchard) black-clad, invisible spirits, seem curiously related to Ariel in their ear-whisperings. Rob Price’s lighting deploys subtle primaries: muted neon blue behind, and with a reflecting panel sudden spotlit white.
Jouhl and Pritchard are commanding as the chorus, with more work to do than anyone save Langford. They cling to characters, commenting, cajoling, warning with a tightening sense of helplessness. Pritchard’s tenor agency is a ringing one contrasted by Jouhl’s more reflective meditation, both ameliorative and agonized. They share a magical moment at the end, a coup in this production.
After their junketing and junking of women, Benjamin Lewis’ splendidly burly Tarquinius is prevented from striking James Corrigan’s Junius by Collatinus. This in Andrew Tipple’s ruminatively noble performance is a role of epacemaker and authority in one. Tipple’s necessary inwardness marks him out from the others. His bass voice powerfully amplifies; Corrigan’s narrows to a laser.
Junius calls Collatinus ‘lucky’ for having Lucretia. Corrigan’s shaven-headed bass Junius might almost break into Verdi’s Iago, believing in a cruel god. In a powerfully incisive solo he fumes with jealousy, pretending friendship to Collatinus but ultimately setting on their common enemy – occupying Etruscan Tarquinius – to seduce Lucretia.
Lewis plays up the havering and genuine reluctance Tarquinius feels about this. He reveres Lucretia, but Junius has deliberately planted a seed, and Tarquinius’ desire to conquer does the rest. His baritone delivers a higher vocal range than his companions but again he occupies the upper reaches with textual clarity as well as an ardent ambivalence till he plunges into excitement. It’s superb and horrible.
Swale’s Lucia is the voice of youth, light and again wondefujlly clear. Taylor-Jones as the motherly Bianca contrasts with Jouhl’s more unearthly mother by registering the hurt and incomprehension, the delicacy then panic of warning.
Langford is mesmeric as Lucretia. Langford can rise to heights of anxiety and panic and uses the lower registers for scorn and devastated shame. Where others deploy some Britten tropes – high melismas – we associate with him (leading to those delicious parodies by Dudley Moore) Lucretia’s part has none of this. There’s nothing remotely like Lucretia till Ferrier’s successor Janet Baker commissioned Britten to write Phaedre in 1974. And even then this part stands alone.
After the climax she circles like a ghost and like the chorus pulls off some surprises of her own. Every detail has been thought through in this Grimeborn production. Far from being just timely, it reinvents how we might feel about this troubling, disturbed and absolutely contemporary piece.
Ethel Smyth’s second-best-known opera The Boatswain’s Mate is on too. This looks set to be vintage Grimeborn. If these same forces return, I wonder if they’d consider that Cinderella opera of Britten’s from 1971, the ill-fated TV opera Owen Wingrave, another Henry James text about a pacifist. Given the chamber treatment, it might prove revelatory. Meanwhile this masterpiece reveals enough about the nature of sexual predators, women’s response to it in a profoundly shame-oriented climate biased against them, and trauma. You must see it.