The Rape of Lucretia at the Royal Opera House

This new Rape of Lucretia, seen first at Snape, now in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, fittingly features singers from two young artists’ programmes: Britten Pears and Jette Parker. In many ways, its greatest strength is theirs—and that of the young Aurora Orchestra players too. (We tend to speak of a chamber orchestra here; were this ‘newer’ music, we should doubtless call it an ensemble.) Conducted by Corinna Niemeyer, this was an immediate, urgent performance which, like Oliver Mears’s immediate, urgent staging, was experienced to excellent, arguably heightened effect in a small theatre. For all aspects of production and performance came together to have us believe they had been conceived as one, almost as if a new work: a vindication not only of an opera whose different components can sometimes sit a little awkwardly with one another, but also of the very genre, currently under such devastating attack from the Arts Council.

Mears’s staging responds to the postwar trauma of the work, bringing it very much into the foreground. I initially wondered whether that might be too much, too one-sided, whether participants in a modern conflict, brutal and brutalised, might find themselves instrumentalised, barely given chance to tell their own tale. That fear proved unfounded, though in this particular case I am not in general without sympathy with calls for greater abstraction or at least historical remove. The more I watched and listened, the more this seemed an entirely justified, indeed illuminating reading of the work. It was, after all, premiered in 1946. Violence, political and sexual—in war, in general too, they are rarely if ever to be dissociated—asked us difficult questions, from different standpoints, letting none of us off the hook. And the cast, crucially, brought this drama, these questions to life.

Swaggering officers, with their own stories to tell, none the same, were the perpetrators. War did not let them off the hook; it was, after all, their war.  Britten’s pacifism loomed large, if unspoken. Even Collatinus was involved in an initial assault on an unnamed woman, though Junius and Tarquinius were more so, in increasing intensity. There was no doubting the heat of the night in which the rape took place, no denying this Tarquinius’s arrogant, damaged animal power, as Jolyon Lee stalked his prey in words, music, and gesture. We were led, if leading were necessary, to adopt the most troubling of male gazes, perhaps in some sense to share in guilt as well as horror. The servants knew what had happened too, one of the most discomfiting scenes being the morning after, when they could see what must have been, yet resolutely tried to carry on, not to mention it. Doubtless it did not befit their station, but it was also a matter of their trying to cope, as women, in this world. How many times had they seen such things before, indeed been assaulted themselves? Carolyn Holy and Sarah Dufresne brought these characters, here far from secondary, to vivid life in gesture and in voice, as indeed did all the cast in their roles.

The tragedy of Anne Marie Stanley’s broken Lucretia’s suicide was spellbinding, the savagery of the deed not spared. She took centre stage, of course, but at what cost? As Collatinus trembled—horrified, weakened, and perhaps ultimately destroyed too—in Anthony Reed’s subtle portrayal, Kieran Rayner’s chameleon-like Junius, seized the aesthetic moment, capturing the corpse on camera for further dissemination. For we like to bestow the dubious, quasi-theological honour of sacrificial lamb after the event, once the deed has been done. Too late for Lucretia, as for the refugees fallen in our seas, on our beaches. Photography renders them literally iconic, especially when one can also hymn their tragic beauty. This was a properly disconcerting moment of self-recognition, or should have been.

Instrumental obbligato lines took us back to Bach, to the cantatas and passions: in the case of oboe towards the close uncomfortably so, given the Chorus’s problematical Christian framing. Mears, for what it is worth, is the first director I have seen to tackle the issue of that framing head on. He did not, I think, offer an answer to the question, but the attempt by Male and Female Chorus to narrate and to explain seemed properly compromised. Were they, at the moment of their prayer of supplication, essentially attempting to convince themselves—and failing? The crisis of this peculiar pair, researchers into crime, perhaps even voyeurs, was increasingly apparent: surrogates in some sense for us, although surely the more ‘active’ participants were too.

All the while, Britten’s score, its eery repetitions vocal and instrumental, its constructivist tendencies already presaging elements of The Turn of the Screw, held us in its thrall, not as something separate from what we saw on stage, but as driving force and still-more-troubling commentary. The sheer creepiness of what we call ‘fate’, yet which has all-too-human as well as divine and sociopolitical roots, is what Britten conveys so well; so too did his performers here.

Mark Berry

Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia Op.37

Lucretia – Anne Marie Stanley, Female Chorus – Sydney Baedke, Male Chorus – Michael Gibson, Tarquinius – Jolyon Loy; Collatinus – Anthony Reed, Junius – Kieran Rayner, Bianca – Carolyn Holy, Lucia – Sarah Dufresne. Director – Oliver Mears, Conductor –Corinna Niemeyer, Lighting – DM Wood, Movement – Sarita Piotrowski, Aurora Orchestra.

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 16th November 2022

ABOVE: Anne-Marie Stanley (Lucretia), Carolyn Holt (Bianca) © Camilla Greenwell