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Britten The Rape of Lucretia Soloists, English National Opera, Barbican Theatre, Friday, November 7th, 2003 (CC)

This was a revival of the first of Britten’s chamber operas, The Rape of Lucretia. English National Opera’s 2001 production was a critically successful one and it was indeed wonderful that further audiences get this (brief) chance to see it again. Lighting, in particular, is remarkably effective (Kevin Sleep reviving Pauline Constable’s efforts in this respect), from the darkness and silhouettes of the opening through to the stronger colours later on.

The cast is a strong one, and Paul Daniel seems at home in this intimate piece (I have found him wanting, previously, in larger scale pieces, particularly in Wagner: ENO’s forthcoming Götterdämmerung should be instructive, therefore).

Sarah Connolly recently emerged as the star of Bellini’s Capuletti, and she was no less impressive on this occasion. Her Lucretia was eloquently and powerfully acted, and beautifully (at times heart-rendingly) sung. Her imposing presence tended to dominate the stage: her portrayal of post-rape utter depression, desperation and defeat in Act 2 was emotionally shattering. Christopher Maltman’s Tarquinius is beautifully sung. His legato is a dream (particularly effective in Act 2), his melismas near-perfect and yet he can project with pure strength, too. I’m afraid I can’t comment on what Melanie Eskenazi memorable called the ‘phoarr’ factor in her excellent review of the 2001 production, but he does indeed seem to have spent a while at the weights. And, yes, a fair amount of his kit is jettisoned. However, his acting could tend towards the wooden (especially obvious when pitted against Connolly).

Clive Bayley’s acting abilities as the Roman general Collatinus, although not completely cleansed of hackneyed poses, was more than acceptable and he sang with aplomb. Leigh Melrose made for a convincing Junius (if slightly weak of projection on occasion) and Timothy Robinson (Male Chorus) displayed strength, despite a sense of strain at the upper registers of his voice (this part was taken by John Mark Ainsley in the 2001 production).

So to the supporting ladies. Orla Boylan (Female Chorus) presented some beautiful phrasing. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, always reliable, was a concerned Bianca (Lucretia’s nurse), but I’ve saved the ‘other’ star of the show for last. Mary Nelson, as Lucia (Lucretia’s maid) was simply superb. Not only did her looks fit the part perfectly, but her pitching of the difficult soprano part was spot-on, her light tone a delight.

For his orchestra, Britten uses a small ensemble. His skill in handling these forces is remarkable (as in Turn of the Screw) and Daniel brings out the subtleties of the score on numerous occasions, while simultaneously carefully shaping the structure. In paring down his orchestra, Britten is able to depict the most tender, and also the most powerful emotions poignantly and unforgettably. Tremendous expression of this ilk with minimal forces is surely an art in itself. This memorable performance enabled the audience to appreciate Britten’s art to a remarkable degree, and for that we should be grateful

Colin Clarke


English National Opera
Revival of The Rape of Lucretia (Britten)
First Performance - Friday 7th November 2003

1 - Sarah Connolly(Lucretia) & Orla Boylan(Female Chorus)
Lucretia - 14 - Christopher Maltman(Tarquinius) & Sarah Connolly(Lucretia)

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