Fiona Shaw’s searing production of Britten’s first Chamber Opera was originally part of the 2013 Glyndebourne Tour, and prior to that the work had not been seen in the house since its premiere in 1946. Why so long? As Kate Royal, who sang the Female Chorus said in an interview here, it’s a very dark, troubling piece which presents many challenges – but this evening was a lesson in how to meet and solve them.
It’s always risky to ignore the instruction that the Male and Female Chorus “…comment upon the action but do not take part in it.” In two past productions, both at ENO, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Kathryn Harries sang from an elevated sliding platform, rather like gods commenting on the suffering mortals below (1986) and in 2001 John Mark Ainsley and Orla Boylan were integrated into the action to such an extent that they almost became ‘Roman’ and ‘Etruscan’ characters. Here, however, we are never in any doubt that the male and Female Chorus are commentators, looking at the distant past through the prism of what has come after it and linking it to their own, and our present suffering, yet they are just sufficiently involved with the characters to create the most gripping dramatic effects.
If the influence of Shakespeare is strong in both opera and production (not just in terms of his poem on the same subject but also moments in King Lear) an equally potent echo seems to be of Housman’s reflection that “The tree of Man was never quiet / Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.” Remarkably, we were left at the end, not with the usual dilemma – does the Male Chorus declaim his final lines with sturdy confidence in Christ, or does he utter them with an implied apology? – but the sense that suffering and nobility are two facets of the same human experience.
This kind of depth can only be achieved if a production has a cast equal to it. Christine Rice has exactly the right demeanour for Lucretia, her dignified composure as moving as her almost unbearable sense of loss, and her rich, even, burnished tone recalls the singing of Janet Baker in this role. Allan Clayton brings a vibrant, clarion sound to the Male Chorus, phrasing those difficult lines with searing intensity and giving his all in terms of characterization.
The Female Chorus is one of Britten’s most challenging roles in that it combines a high-lying vocal part with a dramatic persona which can often seem fussy or even secondary in importance, but Kate Royal conveyed both the poetry of the music and the anxiety of the character, especially in ‘She sleeps as a rose upon the night.’ Duncan Rock’s Tarquinius, ‘Panther agile and panther virile’ as the Male Chorus says, was another ideal casting, singing with gloriously open tone and characterizing this difficult role without recourse to superfluous swagger.
Matthew Rose gave yet another of his sympathetic, beautifully sung portrayals as Collatinus – the line ‘What Lucretia has given can be forgiven’ could not have been sung with more sensitivity and understanding. Bianca is one of many roles which Catherine Wyn-Rogers seems to ‘own’ in that once you have seen her in the part it’s difficult to imagine any other singer giving it such sympathy and strength. Michael Sumuel’s stalwart Junius and Louise Alder’s youthful, impetuous Lucia completed this outstanding ensemble cast.
Leo Hussain and members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra were as much a part of the ensemble as those onstage, such passages as the prelude to the rape as fraught with anxiety as to bring out a sweat, and the anguished passacaglia ideally taut and fervent. Michael Levine’s set design evoked both the soldiers’ camp and Lucretia’s home with simplicity and stark beauty; an especially evocative touch was the sense of the foundations of a Roman villa forming the house with its tiny individual chambers.
No booing for anyone here, but an ecstatic reception which was as heartfelt for the production team as for the principal singers and conductor – now that’s not something you see very often. After a performance such as this, we can only marvel at the enduring power of Britten’s ability “to harness song to human tragedy.”