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Seen and Heard Opera Review


BRITTEN The Rape of Lucretia Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music/Thomas Blunt, 30th November 2004 (CC)

My previous experience of the RCM Opera School left mixed feelings. Yet this production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia was a triumph, able to stand with its head high against the recent ENO production seen at the Barbican Theatre in October 2003.

The acoustic in the RCM’s Britten Theatre is very dry, and all credit to the singers in particular for filling the acoustic space so well. One of the most impressive singers was the Male Chorus, Andrew Staples (who recently appeared on the Dutton recording of Everyman). Dressed casually in black his excellence actually put in the shade somewhat his ‘partner’, the Female Chorus, here Anna Leese. Interesting that there were sexual overtones between the two choruses, who were perhaps not the disinterested observers they might initially claim to be.

To contrast with the demure dress of the Choruses, army fatigues were de rigeur for the military men. Olle Zetterström was a strong Collatinus (preferable, in fact, to Clive Bayley at the Barbican); Andrew Conley also coped well, as Junius. Håkan Ekenäs took the important role of Tarquinius. Against Christopher Maltman for ENO, he could not really compete, but taken on his own terms this was a powerful and convincing assumption.

The three female roles outside of the Female Chorus are Lucretia (Jennifer Johnston), Bianca (Patricia Helen Orr) and Lucia (Malin Christensson, who was Sister Contance in the RCM’s Carmelites). They arrive in the drama after the Male Chorus has described Tarquinius’ journey to Rome, en route to test Lucretia’s chastity. The three ladies appear to be spinning from ropes that hang from the ceiling. Immediately the image of Wagnerian Norns was conjured - a symbol of eternal feminine purity?

Of the three, Lucretia proved strongest over her entire range, but it was Malin Christensson’s Lucia that impressed in its utmost purity and sureness of pitching. In fact this scene was one of the tightest, in an ensemble sense, of the entire opera, with woodwinds completely on-the-ball and a delicate, deliciously played harp underscoring the action. Blunt’s pacing of the final ‘Goodnight’ processional was finely timed.

The orchestra shone especially in Act II, where it managed to convey a magical delicacy in the more lullaby-like sections. True, Orr did not have the depth of interpretation or voice of Connolly, but the graphic act kept its power. The contrast with Bianca (Patricia Helen Orr) and Lucia arranging flowers the next morning was marked.

The orchestra was sunken into a hole, around which the action took place. Production values were consistently excellent, with imaginative and effective use of available space (director Jo Davies, Designer Joanna Parker). Stark colour juxtapositions gave a modern, contemporary feel to an ancient story of eternal relevance (lighting was by Mark Doubleday). Diction was uniformly excellent. However, it was mainly due to the expert pacing of conductor Thomas Blunt that the end of the opera made such a lasting impression.

Colin Clarke



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