Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Rape of Lucretia @ Coliseum, London

21, 27 June, 4, 7 July 2001

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

The Rape of Lucretia is Britten’s sparsest opera, and there are times during its performance when one longs for the lush orchestration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But this is a stark story, and the chamber orchestra at ENO, under the sure hands of Paul Daniel, makes a beautiful sound.

The new production by David McVicar, which opened at the Aldeburgh Festival earlier this month, provides a perfectly simple backdrop for this classical myth of love, loyalty, trust and ultimately tragedy. Earth-red sets by Yannis Thavoris – the colour of the soil still recognisable if you drive north from Rome – echo this ancient civilisation of the sixth century BC.

Lucretia, wife to Roman general Collatinus, is reputed to be the only chaste woman in Rome: an irresistible challenge to the hated Etruscan Prince, Tarquinius. The eponymous rape drives Lucretia, her honour lost, to suicide.

Britten did not intend the male and female chorus, who narrate and comment on these tragic events, to play any part in the drama. McVicar has chosen to bring them into the picture, not only debating with one another but almost precipitating the action, and here they were beautifully sung by John Mark Ainsley (previously stunning as a seductive Jupiter in ‘Semele’) and Orla Boylan. Christopher Maltman was a powerful and richly sung Tarquinius, menacing, bitter and brutal; Sarah Connolly brought a dignified elegance and beauty of tone to Lucretia.

The disappointment of the evening was the diction, critical in this opera, and theoretically – with such a small orchestra, and so many unaccompanied moments – achievable, even with the notorious acoustics of the Coliseum. The evening started out well, virtually every word crystal clear. I don’t know what happened in the interval, but after it almost all the diction had been lost, and with it much of the emotional climax.

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