Royal Opera @ Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 28, 29 April, 1,4 May 2004
Surely the greatest artistic asset of the redeveloped Royal Opera House is the Linbury Studio Theatre, a small but extremely flexible performing space underneath the main auditorium.
It's rather a surprise that the Royal Opera itself is only now beginning to tap the potential of the Linbury, but it was worth the wait, as the company is presenting Britten's The Rape of Lucretia in what is, on the whole, a successful new production.
Lucretia is as multi-faceted a work as any of Britten's operas, but the more interesting aspect in this context is the fact that it is a chamber opera written for an ensemble of singers and musicians to perform in an intimate venue. It was the composer's response to the difficulties of working in a large opera house.
The first performances of Peter Grimes in 1945 were successful, but Britten was irked by the practical complications of writing a large-scale work for a major house. This led him to create a work that would be less expensive to produce, by a company over which the composer could have far more power and interpretative influence.
In July, the Royal Opera is to present a new production of Peter Grimes, which will be a welcome opportunity to compare his grand operatic style with the type of chamber opera that he was eventually to favour.
The strength of this performance of Lucretia is that the majority of the singers are members of the Vilar Young Artists Programme, which funds young singers to spend two years at the ROH understudying and performing small roles before launching their careers. The fact that they know each other really well helped to create a true feeling of ensemble, perfect for this kind of work (I can imagine some of Mozart's early operas being similarly successful with this kind of treatment).
Christine Rice was the guest mezzo playing Lucretia, her physical beauty matched by an unbelievable purity of tone. The role was famously written for Kathleen Ferrier, and Rice's performance is likely to become just as monumental. Unfortunately, her voice was clearly in a higher class than any of the other singers, satisfying though they were.
Returning after completing the Vilar scheme last summer, Grant Doyle's Tarquinius was imbued with physicality and obsession, more successful in the acting than the singing. His voice was at its best earlier in the performance, when the music required less power of him. The brutality of this role is perhaps not best suited to his strengths, although he made a good attempt at it.
One of the more interesting aspects of this opera is the telling of the story by a Greek Chorus - a tenor and a soprano. The story is set about 500BC, but the Chorus is Christian. Thus the pagan myth of Lucretia is juxtaposed with the Christian morals identified by the Chorus. As the Male Chorus, Hubert Francis enunciated every word very clearly, and his omnipresence was very sinister. However, he has a habit of forcing the notes out rather than singing with firm legato. Less imposing was Victoria Nava (Female Chorus), whose words were hard to distinguish even in this tiny theatre - and when you can't comprehend a narrator's words, you don't understand the full story.
Ekaterina Gubanova as Bianca showed real potential, although again her words were sometimes unintelligible. Ha Young Lee's Lucia was a bit too giddy for my taste, but her ringing tone throughout was excellent. Jared Holt (Julius) and Matthew Rose (Collatinus) both acted well, and the latter in particular had a commanding, if slightly forced, voice.
The set design by John Lloyd Davies was most inspired. Books dangling on strings from the ceiling, a Roman frieze surrounding the walls of the theatre and a Dali-esque full moon were just some of the thought-provoking symbols of the production. His direction of the opera was equally innovative. For example, when the audience enters the theatre, the Male Chorus is already on the stage, typing ferociously on a typewriter, as if to suggest he is "writing an history" of which we, the audience, get a glimpse.
The small orchestra was excellent, the players clearly relishing the opportunity to have solo parts to play. Adrian Kelly was the pianist (again on the Vilar scheme), and he was a most sensitive accompanist.
If there are any seats left, grab them now - it's a worthwhile experience.