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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Rape of Lucretia [105:13]
Male Chorus - Ian Bostridge
Female Chorus - Susan Gritton
Collatinus - Christopher Purves
Junius - Benjamin Russell
Tarquinius - Peter Coleman-Wright
Lucretia - Angelika Kirchschlager
Bianca - Hilary Summers
Lucia - Claire Booth
Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble/Oliver Knussen
rec. live, 64th Aldeburgh Festival, 2011
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6026722 [46:35+58:38]

The Rape of Lucretia has always been among Britten’s most problematic operas and it’s rarely performed. The problem isn’t so much the subject matter - many of Britten’s operas feature scenes every bit as unpleasant - though that doesn’t help. The main issue is the structure of Ronald Duncan’s libretto which adopts the deliberately distancing strategy of having a male and female chorus commenting on the action. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but the chorus is forever trying to draw some sort of Christian parable from the unfolding action and the libretto crowbars in all sort of allusions to Christ’s suffering as either a parallel or a solution to Lucretia’s suffering. This is telescoped out to become a metaphor for the suffering of all mankind. It’s clunky and it doesn’t really work. It’s a little surprising that Britten, who was a dramatist to his fingertips, decided to go for it because it seems, if anything, to diminish the power and humanity of the story. Still, the opera contains a lot of excellent music and it gets as convincing a set of advocates here as you could hope to find.
Most of the times I’ve come across Oliver Knussen he has been conducting his own work, but here he shows that he is a Britten interpreter par excellence. He directs the unfolding action with a masterful ear for building and distilling tension. He is helped by a crack team of Aldeburgh musicians who seem to hold the music up to the light to let it sparkle. Britten wrote the piece for a chamber ensemble, and each of the thirteen musicians are named and credited in the booklet. They do a great job of illuminating this most transparent of Britten scores, allowing each of the instrumental lines to shine. Britten’s effects come across brilliantly, nowhere better than in the opening scene with the harp for the twittering crickets and the pizzicato glissandi on the bass for the croaking of the bullfrogs. However, they are also capable of conjuring up the onward progress of the narrative, and moments of excitement such as Tarquin’s ride move with convincing sweep.
The singers are also an excellent team, anchored by the male and female chorus. Ian Bostridge, surely the modern day heir to Pears, sings his lines with energy and passion. He has as fine an ear for the drama as for the musical line, and he isn’t above resorting to a snarl to make the dramatic point. Next to him Susan Gritton seems a little detached and her fulsome tone doesn’t seem to plug into the drama in quite the same way as Bostridge. She still makes a lovely sound, though the microphone balance seems to favour Bostridge over her so that he tends to dominate when they sing together.
Angelika Kirchschlager sings Lucretia with a tone of wounded virtue that puts me in mind of Janet Baker. Her portrayal of stolen innocence is powerful and beautiful. Her diction is so good that only very rarely might you detect that she is not a native English speaker, and even then only if you were listening for it. As Collatinus, Christopher Purves sounds vigorous and worthy, the closest thing this opera has to a hero. Benjamin Russell sings Junius convincingly too, evoking the character’s shame at his cuckolding without overwhelming his virtues. There is a real nasty streak in Peter Coleman-Wright’s voice that in other circumstances could come across as unpleasant; here it suits the character down to the ground. The two maids are beautifully sung too, and they help to bring to life the two most beautiful passages in the piece, namely the folding of the linen in Act 1 and the dawn in Act 2.
Britten’s own recording with Janet Baker will forever have its own authority, and if you can track it down then Kathleen Ferrier’s set is well worth a listen. This recording reinterprets the work in modern digital sound for the 21st Century and acts as a solid advocate for a problematic opera. It may not win the opera many more adoring fans - it’s a difficult work to love - but it certainly deserves to gain it much more respect and admiration.
Simon Thompson

see also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey

Britten discography & review index