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?’
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
‘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.