fri 14/06/2024

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Tour | reviews, news & interviews

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Tour

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Tour

Unfocused singing, playing and staging raise doubts about Britten’s first chamber opera

Tarquinius (Duncan Rock) contemplates the sleeping Lucretia (Claudia Huckle)All images by Richard Hubert Smith for Glyndebourne

“Aren’t you sick of Britten yet?” asked a colleague three-quarters of the way through the composer’s centenary year. Absolutely not; there have been revelations and there still remains so much to discover or re-discover. Yet re-evaluation can sour as well as sweeten; acclaimed works in the canon may turn out less good than remembered.

Was it my own temporary blind spot, the problem of the piece or the musical and dramatic shortcomings so apparent in Fiona Shaw’s Glyndebourne Tour production of The Rape of Lucretia that I emerged into the crepuscular garden unmoved and a little repelled?

Heretical thoughts crept in very early on and persisted. That Britten’s two-act operatic retelling of the clash between noble Roman constancy and Etruscan violence through a contemporary, Christian filter in 1946 might have been distilled as one continuous, 80-minute work - that those set-pieces, starting with the seemingly undistinguished duets and solos for the soldiers camped outside Rome, might be snipped with no loss to musical-theatre tension. That Ronald Duncan’s libretto was much, much worse in its gaucheries and pretensions than I’d remembered (how many excruciating examples do you want?). That the cor anglais passage tracing the raped Lucretia’s shame before patient husband Collatinus seemed so phoney, the ending - musically justified at least - so glib.

But several decades ago when I saw the opera three, four times, I’d overlooked what seemed like minor defects and succumbed to the power of the whole. Why was that power missing from a show that should have had so much to offer? Neither singing, direction nor playing were nearly sharp enough.

The Rape of Lucretia at GlyndebourneVisually, there was promise that rarely delivered. Michael Levine’s set is a steepishly raked rectangle covered in dirt where we discover the Male Chorus (Allan Clayton) feverishly digging at the start (why only becomes clear much later). A tent is deftly raised for the military dominated by febrile Tarquinius Sextus (Duncan Rock). Rooms and crosses are described for the linen-refreshed house of Lucretia in the city. A cyclorama effectively lit by Paul Anderson evokes different times of night, day and the no-man’s-land glare of the rape (Clayton, Rock, Claudia Huckle and Kate Valentine pictured above).

Time hangs heavy in each of the one-hour acts. When Oliver Dunn’s unfocused Junius or Claudia Huckle’s sensitively acted but often inaudible Lucretia – good low register, invisible top - are singing or Clayton moves upstage (the upper and lower registers of this usually clarion tenor sounded occluded last night). When Tarquinius’s pulsing ride to Rome and the dumbshow of good-nights in the home he’s trespassed are stubbornly contradicted by Shaw’s stage action. And above all when onlookers, would-be-ravisher and soon-to-be-victim sing as endlessly as an old-fashioned Italian quartet before taking the plunge into horror. Blame part of that on the lack of tension in Nicholas Collon’s conducting - what went wrong? - and the surprising fuzziness in the sound of the 13 Glyndebourne Tour players in what should be a biting, incisive score.

The Rape of Lucretia at GlyndebourneThere are good ideas: Lucretia revealed buried up to her neck, the poignancy of giving her a young daughter (April Gautrey-Saunders), the tableau of the classical protagonists and their chorus-counterparts mirroring each other in sleep, statue fragments laid out Christ-like on the cross. But too much business betrays the clearer purpose of the score. Kate Valentine as the Female Chorus, clear of diction and sympathy, would have us more on her side if Shaw didn’t get her to pace about too much in wild concern for man’s inhumanity to woman. Rock moves not panther-like but lumberingly to his destiny - the unavoidable resemblance to Prince Harry in Afghanistan doesn’t help - and occasionally lacks thrust at the extremes of the range; the soliloquy of “Within this frail crucible of light”, though, is beautifully sung.

David Soar’s rock-solid Collatinus and above all the sense of total understanding in every word sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the most experienced and best-projecting singer on the stage, as sensible maid Bianca (downstage above with Ellie Laugharne's Lucia, Valentine and Huckle) make the most consistent amends, but it’s not quite enough. It was a great idea to have Shaw follow up Deborah Warner’s Glyndebourne take on Don Giovanni with another two fingers up to the male “she really wanted to be raped” theory. The result, sadly, is a show as blunt as most of the libretto’s clunking images. The fault of Britten and Duncan, or Glyndebourne and Shaw? See it, make up your own minds. Mine is still confused but not inclined to see The Rape of Lucretia again in a hurry.


Vastly different opinions to the many other 5* reviews garnered. One has to wonder what other agendas are at work here...

I wonder why 'other agendas' are suspected when one's disagreement with colleagues - and it happens all the time -  is on the negative rather than the positive front. If you'd like to specify what you think they are, Anon, I'd be happy to address why consciously at least I have no 'agendas' here. I've loved Fiona Shaw's direction in the past, I thought Duncan Rock has shown enormous promise and anticipated his Tarquinius in the Billy Budd review, I adore Glyndebourne and fought for the right of the main season's Ariadne and - elsewhere - its Hippolyte to be taken seriously.

So I wonder if you can reveal my unconscious agendas to me. FWIW I was not the only audience member to have those reservations, and my colleague Alexandra - with whom I've not spoken about the production - turns out to share many of them in her New Statesman review.

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