Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has had many successes with Opera Holland Park and Mid Wales Opera. He is also resident producer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and his production of The Rape of Lucretia proves suitably intense by being staged in largely monochrome shades.
With the audience seated on three sides, the large floor area of Jamie Vartan’s set is gritty and grey while the soldiers’ uniforms are black and white. Their trousers and jackets may add flashes of red but, as the colour of blood and anger, this raises the temperature rather than calms the situation. With the staging proving so atmospheric, one spends Act I really feeling as if some heavy cloud is hanging over the entire situation, which then goes on to rain all of its horror and sorrow over Act II.
The intelligence of Lloyd-Evans’ approach manifests itself in the way in which the Male and Female Choruses are utilised. Much may be dictated by the original words and music, but the direction certainly helps the pair to bring out many of the points. For example, as the Male Chorus sings of Junius’ initial idea to take down Lucretia there is a sense in which an external force is planting the plan in the general’s head. This hardly removes the blame from him, as the Chorus is merely proclaiming his own thoughts, but it does suggest the way in which the idea suddenly arrives and truly overwhelms him.
The Choruses naturally provide some sense of theatricality, and this idea is also exploited. Before the rape scene the Female Chorus sings standing over the sleeping Lucretia only to be scared off by the looming presence of Tarquinius. With her exit comes the departure of any sense of safety that we are simply witnessing a performance. At points during the rape scene the Choruses try to restrain Tarquinius, but they do not only pull in one direction and on other occasions the Male Chorus prevents the Female Chorus from intervening. Then after the terrible event they sit like shattered, shaken creatures against, for once, a backdrop of colour in the form of grass and spring flowers.
Lloyd-Evans utilises a few simple props including a long wooden table. When Tarquinius stares out to the crowd at one end of it as Junius gazes on him from the other, both the visual lines and the sense of one character penetrating another’s thoughts prove strong. Later this table becomes Lucretia’s bed, which Tarquinius shatters to pieces in a second, signifying the destruction of the sanctity of her bedchamber. A square ditch also occupies a section of the stage so that when people stand on opposite sides of it we feel the gulf that lies between their various intentions. Lucretia’s final rape also takes place in it, highlighting how the experience for her is tantamount to a descent into hell.
Measured use is made of projections, courtesy of Dan Shorten, so that Tarquinius’ horse is seen galloping towards Rome, the image also flickering across the prince’s shirt. In another nod to the production’s chiaroscuro credentials, Tarquinius advances towards Lucretia at night by using Mark Jonathan’s lighting to highlight both his huge black shadow and his radiant white shirt. At the end the Male Chorus places a cross-shaped tombstone by Lucretia while the stage opens out to reveal hundreds of these, making it feel like a First World War cemetery and bringing to mind Britten’s own pacifist beliefs.
Dominic Wheeler’s conducting and the orchestral playing never sacrifice balance in their achievement of such haunting intensity, while the cast is exceptionally strong. As Lucretia, Bethan Langford’s mezzo-soprano is rich and nuanced, and yet still carries a beautiful sense of sweetness. As Tarquinius, Josep-Ramon Olivé’s powerful baritone proves suitably menacing, David Ireland’s bass-baritone is assertive and expansive as Collatinus, while the tone of Dominic Sedgwick’s baritone says something about the darkness of Junius’ soul. As Bianca and Lucia respectively, Elizabeth Lynch and Nicola Said provide excellent contrast in terms of both character and sound. As the Male Chorus, Elgan Thomas reveals a striking tenor and excellent enunciation, and as the Female Chorus Elizabeth Karani’s soprano proves stirring and effective. In the final analysis, the fact that I emerged wondering how the singers had succeeded in subjecting themselves to playing out such a harrowing scenario reveals just how committed and convincing their performances were.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.