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?’
For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago.
‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.
A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.
Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.
Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece
With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.
J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.
The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.
What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?
Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.
What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.
In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.
The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.
Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.
This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.
The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.
‘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.