18 Nov 2013
The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera
‘If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?’
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
‘If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?’
Fiona Shaw’s new production of Britten’s problematic second opera, The Rape of Lucretia, doesn’t quite succeed in answering St Augustine’s question, but it does powerfully communicate the work’s troubling dramatic power and relevance.
This Britten centenary year has brought forth a chest of treasures, familiar and rare. Amid the countless offerings, at home and abroad, of the operatic favourites - from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice - we have enjoyed several renditions of the Canticles and Church Parables, performances of Paul Bunyan and Owen Wingrave, and innumerable masterpieces of the chamber repertoire: ranging from the abstractions of Our Hunting Fathers to balletic presentations of Phaedra, with scarcely a song or chamber work neglected, including Britten’s juvenilia.
But, Lucretia is a tricky one. Even the television opera, Owen Wingrave - which can sit uncomfortably in a theatrical context and presents characters with whom it is hard to empathise - communicates its ‘meaning’ more directly: whether we consider it a ghost story, anti-war manifesto or psycho-sexual drama, Wingrave is obviously ‘about’ something. But, Lucretia’s ‘message’ is equivocal and elusive; and, this is not wholly the fault of Ronald Duncan’s dreadfully verbose libretto - how, for example, is a composer supposed to respond to lines such as ‘and always he’d pay his way/ With the prodigious liberality/ Of self-coined obsequious flattery’?
Part of the problem lies in the tale itself. In the Roman account, there are no ambiguities: Lucretia kills herself for socio-political reasons - her husband’s power, social status and honour depend upon her virtue. In Shakespeare’s poetic narrative, Lucrece exhibits a guilt which is laden with Christian misogyny: she is beautiful, and her loveliness and purity has provoked Tarquin’s natural, masculine sexuality - so it’s her fault, like Eve, and the least she can do for the sake of everyone else is finish things off quickly.
Britten’s opera shifts between the two positions. We begin in a Roman military camp beside the Tiber, the formal device of the Male and Female chorus distancing us from the action in the manner of Greek tragedy. Indulging in crude banter, the boisterous soldiers praise Lucretia’s steadfastness and goodness, and the Male Chorus acknowledges, ‘Collatinus is politically astute to choose a virtuous wife./ Collatinus shines bright from Lucretia’s fame’.
However, contradicting this ‘historical’ focus, in their first lines the Choruses announce, ‘We’ll view these human passions and these years/ Through eyes which once have wept with Christ’s own tears’, establishing a specifically Christian perspective, one confirmed in Lucretia’s dying words, ‘See, how my wanton blood/ Washes my shame away!’ And, then there is the Christian epilogue which offers salvation to the participants’ despairing cry, ‘Is this all?’: ‘Jesus Christ. He is all! He is all!’ It’s all rather confusing.
Fiona Shaw and her design team (sets Michael Levine, lighting Paul Anderson, costume Nicky Gillibrand) opt for desolation with scarce hint of salvation. A bleak, raked stage, covered with earth overlain with a grubby black cloth, is dimly lit. Throughout the opera, the characters struggle to climb this incline, a physical manifestation of their worldly troubles and inner torments, and turn from us to peer into the delicate blue light which glows from afar - an elusive emblem of hope perhaps, but ever unattainable.
The cloth is raised with a single, central pole to form a dingy encampment. Drunken soldiers squat in the dark corners of the crowded tent, their fatigues reminding us that war, with its suffering and atrocities, is not merely an historical phenomenon. The Male and Female Choruses, dressed in dull 1940s clothing, are our conduit, via WWII, to this former era. In the libretto, the house curtain rises to show the Chorus ‘reading from books’; but Shaw literally digs her way back into antiquity, the Male Chorus scrabbling in a muddy pit from which Lucretia is later unearthed. Similarly, Collatinus’s house is an archaeological site, its perimeter marked by excavators’ tape, only a few foundation stones and rubble indicating its inner dimensions.
The gloom is ubiquitous, a cross-shaped standard lap providing weak illumination. Only at the start of Act 2, when Lucretia lies asleep, dreaming ‘the sunken treasures of heavy sleep’, does Anderson shine a gleaming white spotlight on her resting form, the sudden contrast powerfully evoking the purity of one who is ‘as light as a lily that floats upon a lake’. However, the glistening transparency proves poignantly fragile and defenceless against Tarquinius’ lust - ‘Loveliness like this is never chaste; If not enjoyed, it is just waste!’ Shaw shows us, explicitly and indisputably, how Tarquinius is driven to destroy the very beauty that he desires, Lucretia’s defilement taking place amid the earth and gravel of a dark, Hadean pit. At the end, it is from this pit that severed limbs and a head are unearthed; the Choruses’ closing religious consolations are bitterly unconvincing.
On 15th November, the young cast were on fine form. Andrew Dickinson and Kate Valentine were outstanding as the Male and Female Chorus respectively, engaging our interest and our feelings as they related and participated in the unfolding tragedy. Dickinson articulated Duncan’s literary turgidities with clarity and fluency, his delivery natural and unmannered but the sentiments heartfelt. Valentine sang with generous tone and warmth, always relaxed, blending beautifully with Dickinson in the duet refrain which punctuates the opera. The lullaby which the Female Chorus sings over Lucretia’s sleeping form was elegant and touching, enhanced by some exquisite playing by alto flute, bass clarinet and horn.
Britten and Duncan originally conceived the Choruses as commentators, relating a tale from the annals of Roman history (as the curtain falls on Act 1, they ‘pick up their books and continue reading’). At times, Shaw’s Choruses adopted a similarly distanced viewpoint but elsewhere they travelled back through time, and engaged and interacted with the past. So, as Dickinson related the account of Tarquinius’s nocturnal journey to Rome, his precipitous flight was mimed in the background while the Female Chorus tried to intercept and deter the dissolute Roman ruler as he recklessly lamed his horse and plunged into the Tiber, propelled by jealousy and lust. Such interaction added immediacy and deepened our empathy. The occurrences of the distant past have been undergone by many since: during WWII and in the present day. Shaw shows us that the story the Choruses tell, is their tale too; but, it does seem a step too far to suggest an intimate sexual attraction between the two Choruses
The role of Lucretia was originally written for Kathleen Ferrier; Claudia Huckle may not possess a voice of such ample fullness, but after a slightly hesitant start she produced an intense and affecting performance. She acted with intelligence and commitment. A voice that initially embodied lightness and composure, transmuted after her violation to darker tones conveying vulnerability and self-castigation. Her confession was rich, mobile and expressive, her exposure unveiling a troubling guilt as Tarquinius’s desire became her crime. Huckle’s Lucretia is no artificial idol; rather she is a real, flesh-and-blood woman, shocked and destroyed by her own unbidden passions.
Duncan’s libretto depicts the rigid divisions in Roman society between male and female groups. Here, the Etruscan soldiers were crude, misogynistic competitors, convincingly brazen and coarse. In contrast, Ellie Laugharne’s lively, bright Lucia and Catherine Wyn-Rogers pure-toned Bianca suggested honest, uncomplicated friendship and love within the female domain.
Oliver Dunn revealed an appealing baritone and sure dramatic instincts as Junius. David Soar presented a well-rounded Collatinus, his strident Act 1 soliloquy on ‘love’ giving way to tender and profound sincerity following Lucretia’s confession, supported by rising woodwind and harp accompaniment gently intimating hope; ironically his forgiveness merely exacerbated Lucretia’s remorse.
As Tarquinius, Duncan Rock was fittingly assertive and muscular, although his aggression and brashness was modulated by moments of lyricism. Enraged by taunts and boasts, stirred by Lucretia’s beauty and virtue, his passionate outburst before his assault was poetic and ecstatic.
After the rape, Rock sadly conveyed a sense of his own loss - ‘Though I have won/ I’m lost./ Give me my soul/ Again/ In your veins sleep/ My rest.’; his Tarquinius was to be both censured and pitied.
Britten’s score is sparse, fitting for the post-war cultural climate when the work was composed, and ideal for our own ‘age of austerity’. In contrast to the drab bleakness on stage, the twelve instrumentalists conducted by Jack Ridley responded wonderfully to the transparent lucidities of Britten’s scoring. As Tarquinius crept through Lucretia’s house, the percussion’s nervous motifs skilfully depicted the explosive tension within the assailant. There was some enchantingly sensitive playing from harpist Sue Blair, and Alan Darbyshire’s silky cor anglais melody, above unsettling off-beat bass quavers, deepened the poignancy of Lucretia’s entrance preceding her confession.
In an article, ‘The Problems of a Librettist: Is Opera Emotionally Immature?’, Duncan suggested that the opera continued the dramatization of the conflict between the individual and society begun in Peter Grimes: ‘the individual is personified by Lucretia whose virtuous personality is persecuted, raped, by Tarquinius, who symbolises Society’. A more abstract reading might propose that the opera explores relationships between desire and violence, love and sin: after Lucretia’s death, the whole cast cry: ‘How is it possible that she/ Being so pure should die!’
But, for all the digging and delving, Fiona Shaw doesn’t find historical or philosophical ‘truth’: Lucretia’s suicide is presented more as a personal purgation than a social sacrifice, but the intimations of her guilt are neither confirmed nor eradicated. The Christian epilogue does not provide a redemptive framework: we do not equate Lucretia’s suffering with Christ’s crucifixion. But, this doesn’t matter. Shaw offers an intensely moving spectacle. As Lucretia herself says: ‘What I have spoken never can be forgotten.’
Glyndebourne Touring Opera will perform in Milton Keynes 19-23 November, Plymouth 24-30 November and Stoke-on-Trent 11/14 December.
Cast and production information:
Male Chorus, Andrew Dickinson; Female Chorus, Kate Valentine; Collatinus, David Soar; Junius, Oliver Dunn; Tarquinius, Duncan Rock; Lucretia, Claudia Huckle; Bianca, Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Lucia Ellie Laugharne; Director, Fiona Shaw; Conductor, Jack Ridley; Set Designer, Michael Levine; Lighting Designer, Paul Anderson; Costume Designer, Nicky Gillibrand; The Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra. Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Friday 15th November, 2013.