Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Rape of Lucretia review: The Royal Opera’s devastating staging features a faultless cast of young singers

13 November 2022

Oliver Mears’ disturbing staging makes the strongest case for Britten’s darkest opera.

The Rape of Lucretia

Anne Marie Stanley & Carolyn Holt (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

First seen at the Snape Maltings, Oliver Mears’ new staging of Britten’s first chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, opened at the Linbury Theatre at the weekend for a handful of performances. Commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera and first performed at the 1946 festival, it’s scored for eight singers and thirteen instrumentalists, specifically to reduce performing costs at a time when post-war English opera houses had limited resources. Musically, The Rape of Lucretia is a triumph – the composer was inspired to write some of his most ravishing and passionate music. It’s just a shame that Ronald Ducan’s libretto is so overblown with pomposity, as it often detracts from the sheer brilliance of Benjamin Britten’s writing. 

Of course the subject matter makes for an uncomfortable and disconcerting evening of music theatre – as it should – but in Mears’ unflinching, contemporary view of the work, that sense of being a helpless onlooker was magnified. Here the three soldiers, Collatinus, Junius and Tarquinius, have returned from a tour of duty in some unspecified European war, possibly the Balkans or even Ukraine, and are first seen abusing a female civilian prisoner. The image is properly shocking, yet in a stroke conveys the abject horror of war. We’re told part of the backstory by the two ‘commentators’ on the action, the Male and Female Choruses. He clutches a folder full of documents, while she carries a portrait of a young woman. Are these Lucretia’s parents – his folder filled with documents to strengthen the case he’s bringing against the army for the death of his daughter, while she carries a framed photo of her daughter as an act of remembrance?         

We never do find out, but their pent up anger certainly suggests so. These are just some examples of the deft touches that make Mears’ staging so compelling and theatrical. Within Annemarie Sand’s modern-day living room designs, Mears directs his youthful cast with a sure hand and is rewarded with performances of an emotional maturity that belie their years. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all is when Lucretia appears before her husband, Collitanus, the morning after Tarquinius has raped her. Silent, her face wracked with shame and guilt, unable to speak, she’s a broken woman, whilst Collatinus’ silent, dumbfounded reaction speaks volumes. Only once does Mears slightly miss the mark. Tarquinius’ warzone flashbacks at the start of the second act have a danger of making the character sympathetic. He may be suffering from PTSD, but the audience should feel no sympathy for him whatsoever. 

“…in Mears’ unflinching, contemporary view of the work, that sense of being a helpless onlooker was magnified”

The Rape of Lucretia

Jolyon Loy & Anne Marie Stanley (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Not only does this staging pack an enormous theatrical punch, it’s superbly sung and played as well. It was a bold stroke to cast the opera with singers from the ROH’s Jette Parker Artists and Britten Pears Young Artist programmes, but one that handsomely pays off. Within the intimate surroundings of the Linbury their voices carried well, as did every word, rendering the surtitles redundant. Commenting on the action and driving the narrative, Michael Gibson (Male Chorus) and Sydney Baedke (Female Chorus) both sang magnificently. His well-schooled tenor was bright yet incisive, while her soprano was even throughout the range, expressive and free in the upper reaches of the role.

Tarquinius is a difficult role to bring to life, given his character is utterly unsympathetic, yet Jolyon Loy managed to make him three-dimensional. Using his height to his advantage, he commanded the stage, literally towering over the action while producing much nuanced, yet thrilling singing. Anthony Reed was in sovereign voice as Collitanus, his dark-hued bass bringing gravitas to the role, while Kieran Rayner made the most of the role of Junius – revealing an impressive baritone of enormous potential. Anne Marie Stanley charted Lucretia’s path from proud, chaste wife to broken, shattered victim of horrific violence unerringly, her warm emollient mezzo-soprano moulding Britten’s vocal lines to perfection. With notable cameos from Carolyn Holt (Bianca) and Sarah Dufresne (Lucia), this was a cast without a weak link.

In the pit Corinna Niemeyer led a coruscating account of the work, the thirteen soloists from the Aurora Orchestra playing this fascinating score which brims with invention as if their lives depended on it. Yes, the libretto is overstuffed with toe-curlingly embarrassing lines, but even these shortcomings can’t detract from the overwhelming impact this opera has on its audience. This staging is yet another feather in The Royal Opera’s cap, and an electrifying addition to its cycle of Britten operas.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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The Rape of Lucretia review: The Royal Opera’s devastating staging features a faultless cast of young singers