Tag Archives: Kate Valentine

Lucretia at the gravel pit / The Rape of Lucretia / Glyndebourne – 19 October 2013

28 Oct

Rape of LucretiaWho 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.

Rape of Lucretia list

A production video courtesy of Glyndebourne

Some tweets from the evening

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Handbags at dawn or protecting the family silver / Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream / ENO – 21 May 2011

22 May

I have to confess at being a total Britten virgin and this time round I went to see the new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the English National Opera on a whim (only bought the tickets the day before the opening). While following all the reactions of bloggers and critics on Twitter I was fascinated by the genuine dialogue it was creating. Lets say there was a buzz in the air. It was a shame to hear that Iestyn Davies was vocally indisposed and he was only acting the part while a stand in was singing from the side of the stage (he was absolutely fantastic as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe Regina di Tebe which was on last year at Covent Garden) but the other main reason for seeing it was my total inexperience with Britten’s operatic output. I systematically had avoided his work as it seemed to lack passion and any compositional radicalism.

Reading numerous reviews the day after the first performance I was intrigued by the division between the reviewers into the offended old crowd that thought the family silver had been pilfered and a much younger group that thought it was as exciting, if not even more, than Faust that preceded the production at the Coliseum. A particular example that created an avalanche of Tweets was Stephen Jay-Taylor’s “review” that had all the qualities of a gossip session over the garden fence. He has been writing for aeons but that fact does not give him a carte blanche to insult performers in order to please his enlarged sense of self.

Having seen the production this evening I can say that I am terribly surprised that such irresponsible rubbish has been written about it. Why is Britten’s work seen as the sacred cow of British operatic tradition? Himself partially used Shakespeare’s play and wasn’t too bothered with authenticity, why does a change of context create such an amount of discomfort and apparent sense of threat? Christopher Alden did give us a very uneasy ride by siting the action in front of a forbidding Victorian school all painted grey(a nice touch was that the right hand side part of the set was jutting beyond the proscenium, agitating the space in the process). Surely we did not get the fantastical wood that Britten’s own provincial first production in 1960 has had. But Alden does make an interesting allusion to the composer’s personal life and his perception by the people around him. He creates an uncomfortable story of child abuse that is insinuated through the relationship of teacher Oberon and his chosen student. A clever reference to Britten’s obvious fascination with boys throughout his life and operatic career. Even though there is no evidence of any impropriety Alden is inviting us to look through the eyes of Britten’s contemporaries in 1960, while he was rehearsing the piece it must have seemed to a lot of people totally unnatural a mature man to cast a cornucopia of young boys in his latest opera and to have them rehearse in a barn in the middle of nowhere. That very core of his idea about the composer is what can be seen as gratuitous and an easy shot. But I can vouch that it actually works on stage. It brings Britten’s own demons to the fore with the cruel reality of school thrown in for good measure.

The set is providing for hidden looks and touching between Oberon and his Changeling Boy, creating an intriguing mix of psychological terror and a tableaux of shadows that gets exploited in numerous ways. A very telling scene is in the second act when Oberon leaves behind Tytania who is smoking in a depressed state while he walks off stage with the boy. Till he reappears in 15-20 mins all sorts of ideas circle in the minds of the audience. Another creepy detail is when Oberon stops singing his aria out of the window of the classroom his “best boy” is helping him put his jacket on. And that is the way Alden’s sub plot is working, by suggestion. He has not gone for any coarse means but by association he leads his audiences mind to wonder into some very dark recesses. Now that is the kind of thinking process that would never take place had we had a pretty wood on stage. This kind of total rethink of the plot may seem an anathema to some purists but as a newcomer to Britten found it meaningful and an interesting diversion from a well trodden path, where staging an opera amounts to performance archaeology and nothing more. This darkness in setting and intentions has also another effect, it amplifies that almost film noir elements of the score. All the slightly dissonant keyboard playing and the haunting long phrasing of the strings seems dark and airless on top of a gleaming, textural couverture of pizzicati strings and bells.

The third act brings a hilarious staging of the play within a play (Thisbe and Pyramus), the audience tonight found it very funny and there was a lot of laughing echoing in the auditorium, in contrast it seems to what a couple of spiteful reviewers were reporting from the première. Willard White was really going for broke and delivered some very funny moments and also an emotionally charged moment when he almost directed the school children / fairies to use the whole of the building as a giant drum kit in order to accompany their singing. Michael Colvin’s Flute (Thisbe) was really funny in pink tights and sang very well his “heroine’s” last moments.

Anna Christy sang her torturous high coloratura with the frivolous outlook of a leggera soprano. Her singing was beautiful and being made to parade the stage in your bra while singing some killer aria is not an easy task. She gave us the frumpiest Tytania in the history of the stage but she had the stage presence to be a fantastic companion to Oberon.

Iestyn Davies did actually sing tonight, his voice was as beautiful as ever but in the first couple of scenes he sounded guarded and seemed not to push too hard, his subdued instrument making his presence feel weak. But it’s totally understandable when he is not very well. After the interval he sounded much more comfortable and the volume increased too. Even for people that find counter tenors tedious I can imagine finding his attractive silver tinged delivery appealing.

Two other definite stand outs where Allan Clayton (Lysander) and Kate Valentine (Helena), their duets where beautiful and with a very confident and assertive vocal positioning.

All in all I am relieved to report that there was not a hint of boo from the audience. Everyone was appreciative of the great efforts from the choir, orchestra (under the vibrant baton of Leo Hussain) and soloists. Britten’s crystalline structures came through and the clarity of the playing was just a joy. I don’t think he will ever be my favourite composer but tonight was a great start of looking into more of his works in the coming seasons. One criticism I would have of this first outing of the production (as referred to by Alexandra Coghlan) was the profusion of wall touching…most of the characters spend inordinate amounts of time feeling the grey walls. An exaggeration that sometimes took us away from the moment. But that hopefully can be looked at and corrected and not seen as an Alden signature.

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