Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways. Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways. It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense). It’s also not a “numbers” piece. There are no set pieces here. The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten. Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.
The libretto, by Ronald Duncan, is quite poetic, evokes a wide range of moods and has an interesting structure. A male and female chorus are used, as they tell us, to mediate between the modern audience and the ancient story. This allows them to put a Christian gloss on the story, finding meaning and redemption in Lucretia’s horrible and senseless fate. Perhaps in 1946 the world needed to find meaning in suffering and in 1946 Britain that had to have a Christian context but it sits oddly for a contemporary audience.
The drama itself, based on a play by André Obey, is a straightforward enough version of the Lucretia legend. The Romans are at war with unspecified Greeks. Three generals; ambitious Junius, Collatinus, husband of Lucretia, and Tarquinius, single, dangerous and heir to the throne are in the field. On a drunken bet Junius and tarquinius return to Rome to see whose wife has been chaste and loyal. There follows a rather extensive catalogue of falls from virtue from which Lucretia, alone among the ladies of Rome, emerges as virtuous. Junius is devastated at the infidelity of his own wife and eggs Tarquinius on to a nocturnal visit to Lucretia. Rape duly follows and, despite her husband’s plea that there is no shame if she was unwilling she kills herself. Junius incites the Romans to throw out the Etruscan Tarquins.
David McVicar’s approach to the piece for the ENO production recorded at Snape in 2001 is to ignore score’s injunction that the chorus shall play no part in the action. Here they are tied very much into the action as it unfolds and there is a clear bonding of Lucretia and the female chorus in a sort of display of female solidarity. The staging is very spare with just a touch of opulence at the beginning of Act 2 when we get a mirror backwall reflecting the sleeping Lucretia on a bed of petals. This throws the onus of the piece onto the actors and they manage very well. The trio of generals make for an interesting contrast with stentorian bass Clive Bayley playing a bluff and sensible Collatinus, Leigh Melrose as a fairly malevolent Junius and Chris Maltman as a dangerously sexy, feral Tarquinius. Lucretia speaks of Tarquinius as the tiger in the forest in her dreams. Maltman may be more panther than tiger but one gets the point.
The rape scene itself is handled rather well. It somehow manages to be quite realistic without being pornographic though there is some nudity involved. It may seem odd to talk about chemistry in a rape scene but Sarah Connolly and Maltman unquestionably have it. Connolly also displays a completely different kind of chemistry with Bayley. It’s really rather impressive.
The singing is all of a very high calibre. I thought the stand outs were John mark Ainsley as the Male Chorus, the part created for Peter Pears and so lying quite high in the tenor range, and Connolly who is simply superb. The range of emotion she can invoke with small changes of tone are quite something and, of course, it’s a very beautiful instrument. But all the singers mentioned perform more than creditably as do Female Chorus Orla Boylan and Lucretia’s maids sung by Mary Nelson and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. The band, drawn from members of the ENO orchestra, plays superbly under taut direction by Paul Daniels who brings out every detail in the score with wonderful clarity.
The Blu-ray disk is surprisingly good technically. It’s been remastered to HD and DTS-HD sound from an original BBC TV standard definition stereo recording. The sound is especially good with a lot of bass extension and a very solid and detailed sound stage. The picture isn’t bad but looked at closely it’s pretty clear it’s not a true HD capture. Sue Judd’s video direction definitely looks “made for TV”. It’s heavy on super close-ups (one can see sweat dripping off Sarah Connolly’s ear in a rather odd way). It really is the weakest link in the whole affair. For bonus material there’s a cast gallery and a short but informative interview with McVicar. The booklet also includes a decent essay on the history of the piece. There are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean subtitles.
This is a really solid disk marred only by somewhat fussy video direction. The only other video recording of this important work is the 1987 ENO version which has 1987 technology. This would seem to be the preferred candidate though if there is a video release of the current Glyndebourne production one might need to reevaluate.