Who doesn’t love going to Glyndebourne…especially with decent weather. The second visit of the year (trying not to bankrupt myself) was an equally exciting one. Watching Britten’s Lucretia in the house it was written for (OK not quite the same building, the 1946 theatre had only 300 seats and the shape of a local gym, but the intimacy of the scale is near enough the same) was hugely exciting. It is sobering to think that Britten managed to compose Lucretia in four months, the length of time being disproportionate to the level of invention, effectiveness of the orchestration and depth of expression.
Fiona Shaw tackled the awkward ambivalence of the Christian chorus and the idolatrous Roman protagonists with a flattening of the environment to what amounted to an archeological dig.
The curtain opened before the overture to the Male Chorus face down in the black gravel with a spade nearby with only a yellow construction/archaeological dig light on the side. Shaw proposes that the Romans and their sordid tales are excavated from the darkness of this pit and brought to light. An interesting idea that given the touring nature of the production was realised very satisfactorily by Michael Levine. The black cloth covering most of the stage gets propped to create a giant tent for Tarquinius and his soldiers to rest under. A simple but very functional use of stage and minimal props. After the first scene the cloth gets removed revealing the rest of the gravel expanse that is quickly dug up by the two Chorus singers to reveal the footings of a Roman villa. A shorthand way to draw space without the use of a heavy set. The sparseness surely directed our attention to the singers. In a piece of such spare scoring and naked emotion it was a great match. My only qualm would be whether the iconography of an excavation (aside from any ridiculous Time Team analogies) has much currency for a general audience. But overall the bleak blackness of the set in contrast with the backdrop being illuminated to give an impression of the time of day was a moody environment to present one of Britten’s most paired down and darkly beguiling scores. This first chamber opera was the opening salvo for him that possibly culminated in his most beautiful score, The Turn of the Screw another small ensemble piece that packs a big punch.
Early on the conversation between Junius and Tarquinius about virtue and women raised a few eyebrows and knowing little chirps of giggles in the audience
JUNIUS: Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity
TARQUINIUS: Lucretia’s chaste as she is beautiful
JUNIUS: Women are chaste when they are not tempted.
In Shaw’s world of unshaken domesticity it is the libidinous Tarquinius (all muscle and swagger as portrayed by Duncan Rock) that transforms Lucretia from the chaste mother (she added a fictional daughter in the cast to elicit extra sympathy for the heroine) and wife to an equally disgraced Roman, her life destroyed by a sexual act. Britten’s work never quite clarifies the rights and wrongs of Lucretia’s rape. The contemporary viewer aided by the Chorus look in but the work fails to show a lack of attraction on her part. What seems equivocal in its title becomes murky. That moral ambivalence when put through as clearly is a numbing conclusion.
Shaw also concentrated on the ritualistic element of the piece adding symbolist touches to amplify inherent meaning, the Roman head rested in the finale on the outline of the house made to resemble a cross symbolising the dawn of Christianity, the faith of the Male and Female Chorus…with Valentine throwing her bible across the set moments earlier added a menacing touch maybe pointing to the helplessness of faith.
The rape scene was disturbing and captivating in Tarquinius’ near cinematic slow movement across Lucretia’s house to her bed chamber. Duncan Rock’s muscular physique played to the raffish nature of the character and his brutal sense of ownership and entitlement. Now why did the two Chorus singers continue to dig during the shameful conclusion of the scene in the black rubble is an awkward moment in the direction that while it solidifies the movement to a sculptural stillness it also takes away the muscularity of the struggle. I can imagine how this excavation-chic konzept can suggest that conclusion and being chosen purely for its visual impact. But if you add the famously anti-climactic and wet Christianity of the final dialogue by the Chorus I would have preferred a more dynamic, brutal final struggle.
The singing by the whole cast was excellent and extremely moving. Both Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton were spectacular in their articulation of the text with clear as glass diction and a melancholic sweetness. I have seen them both sing many times before and this is a definite career highlight. They embodied the moral voice of the work with such authority even a few unconvincing directorial flourishes in the form of an awkward sexual scene (in matching powder blue underwear, nonetheless) could not spoil the sturdy framework they offered for all the other performances to hang from.
Our Lucretia did make a great entrance almost like the raising of Lazarus, her long white scarf dragging her out of the ubiquitous gravel pit at stage left…the location of the rape an hour later. The aesthetic choice of her white outfit that keeps getting slowly tarnished by contact to a smeared tar-like dishevelment was a brilliant choice. Claudia Huckle used her velvety contralto and lithe physique for a devastating portrayal of the central heroine. A mother but above all a universal woman who takes her destiny in her own hands trying to protect her family and posthumous reputation.
Oliver Dunn and David Soar offered very strong supporting performances and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (unbelievably in her house debut) showered the stage with charisma and deep empathy for her mistress. The glassy coloratura of Ellie Laungharne in the spinning and flower arranging scene was a vivid image of sensitivity and quiet horror.
The playing by the orchestra under Nicholas Collon was exemplary and embraced the angularity of line with the near pastoral woodwind solos. Britten’s addition of a piano creates a continuo kind of richness but with a disturbing clang that underlines the cruelty of the story.
If you are not convinced by all the above to go and see it, I’ll urge you anyway. Even if Britten doesn’t quite move you enough, this production in all its stark splendour makes a great advocate for this jewel of a score accompanied by an immaculate cast.
A production video courtesy of Glyndebourne
Some tweets from the evening