Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Rape of Lucretia
Male Chorus - John Mark Ainsley
Female Chorus - Orla Boylan
Collatinus - Clive Bayley
Junius - Leigh Melrose
Tarquinius - Christopher Maltman
Lucretia - Sarah Connolly
Bianca - Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Lucia - Mary Nelson
Orchestra of English National Opera/Paul Daniel
David McVicar (director)
rec. live, Aldeburgh Festival (Snape Maltings), 2001
Region Code 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, Dolby 2.0 Stereo, DTS 5.1
OPUS ARTE OA1123D DVD [120:00]

When I reviewed Oliver Knussen’s (excellent) CD recording of The Rape of Lucretia, I said that it’s a work people tend to admire rather than to love. I still think that’s true, but if this recording doesn’t make you more favourably disposed to the work as a whole then it’s hard to see what will, because it offers about the most convincing case for it that I’ve yet come across.
Yannis Thavoris’ set is pretty minimalist, with little more than a few tiered levels for the characters to interact on, though there is a pool of water in the foreground which is used to project ripple effects at certain moments. As ever, however, it is David McVicar’s direction of the singers that makes the visual element special. He is very good at depicting the contrasting energies of the two worlds of the drama. The opening scene in the soldiers’ camp really emphasises the macho nature of this male world - you can almost smell the sweat and testosterone. In the context of this world of dangerous male bonding it is unsurprising that Tarquinius’ lustful passions are given full rein to develop. In contrast, the domestic world of the women is simple and homely, and more brightly coloured through the ladies’ costumes. The domestic chores, such as the folding of the linen or the flower arranging, stand for a kind of innocence and simplicity that is remarkable in its contrast to the soldiers’ camp. Tarquinius’ intrusion into this world can only end in disaster.
Tarquinius himself is played brilliantly by Christopher Maltman. He gets right into the physicality of the role, projecting himself forward with all the character’s lascivious selfishness. This infects his singing too so that there is an insidious, dark edge to all of his music, for all that Maltman sings it beautifully. Leigh Melrose is a similarly worldly Junius, and his “banter” with Tarquinius gives spur to his plot for the rape. Against these two, Clive Bayley’s Collatinus comes across as noble and just but fundamentally weak, and no match for their more fleshly personae.
Sarah Connolly makes a wonderful Lucretia, too. She is dignified and noble throughout, and she uses the lower registers of her voice most effectively to portray, first, the character’s pervasive sense of virtue and later her sense of devastation after the rape; her monosyllabic “confession” before Collatinus is unanswerable, despite his words of compassion. However, she is at her most compelling during the scene of the rape itself, conveying Lucretia’s sense of helplessness and resistance but at the same time conveying some of her fascination with Tarquinius: does she not sing, “In the forest of my dreams, you have always been the Tiger”? Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Mary Nelson make an excellent pair of servants, Lucia’s sweet-voiced naivety contrasting well with the more world-weary depth of Bianca.
In many ways the greatest revelations come from the Male and Female chorus, both excellently sung. McVicar’s big idea is to have them interacting invisibly with the rest of the cast. This turns them into a psychological commentary on the unfolding story and adds an extra layer of depth that you don’t get from a purely audio recording. This, above all, is the DVD’s strength. The indecisiveness of Ainsley, for example, as he narrates Tarquinius’ ride to Rome, or Boylan’s pitiful helplessness as she comments on the scene before and after the rape, really make the performance come alive, and make this a winner over any other audio performance. Knussen may have better singers, but he suffers - as do all other CD performances - from being burdened by the work’s unsatisfactory Christian parallels. McVicar can’t entirely do away with these but it helps that, in his Epilogue, both male and female chorus seem utterly unconvinced by the trite looking forward to Christ as the solution to creation’s problems.
Add in the expert playing of the ENO chamber ensemble and Paul Daniel’s intelligent conducting, and you have a winner on your hands. This is probably the best way for a beginner to experience Lucretia; a great work, for all its problems.
Simon Thompson

Britten review index & discography: The Rape of Lucretia

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