dmg media (UK)
Benjamin Britten is arguably the finest opera composer born in the 20th Century. His 13 full-length operas include masterpieces like Peter Grimes – described by a noted critic as turning English opera from a path previously paved merely with good intentions to solid achievements – and successors such as Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn Of The Screw and Death In Venice. These hold the stage all over the world, though each are very different from the other. One that doesn’t do so well is The Rape Of Lucretia, first heard at Glyndebourne a year after the triumphant premiere of Grimes. It follows a different path: it’s a chamber opera, employing a small cast of eight singers, and a 12-piece instrumental ensemble. This new production in Covent Garden’s refurbished studio theatre is strongly cast with some exceptional young singers offering outstanding performances under the rigorous baton of Corinna Niemeyer. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only a few, but Anne Marie Stanley’s full-bodied contralto makes for a compelling portrayal of the tragic Lucretia (left, with Anthony Reed). She is well matched by the charismatic stage presence and equally fine singing of the British baritone Jolyon Loy in the pivotal but thankless role of the rapist, Tarquinius. Director Oliver Mears and his designer Annemarie Woods turn the piece into a grotty kitchen sink drama. But overall Mears does well enough to highlight the power of the piece at climactic points. The problems of this opera can be simply stated. Act I is pretty dull. Act II isn’t, but much fine music is thrown away in the build-up to the rape scene – the rape itself is not depicted on stage – the drama distracting from Britten’s musical inspiration. Similarly, the chatter of Lucretia’s attendants is beautifully composed, but what they are singing is too trivial to permit maximum focus. There is also the Christian message (apparently Britten himself insisted upon it), which many contemporary opera-goers find intrusive and irritating. When a performance as good as this cannot totally liberate the piece, one is driven to conclude it will always live a half-life in the shadow of Britten’s finest operatic achievements. But still well worth seeing, and it’s a shame there isn’t a longer run. The night I went, the theatre was packed.