S&H Opera review

Britten The Rape of Lucretia ENO at The Coliseum 2-7 July 2001 (PGW)

Has there been a quiet conspiracy of silence to minimise the loss which attended the move, demanded for financial imperatives, of ENO's base, now many years ago, from the small, old Sadlers Wells in Islington to the Coliseum? That thought was prompted by the lauded revival of The Rape of Lucretia, which I found unsuitable for this vast house, despite being allocated excellent stalls seats, and moving during the interval to the side of the circle to be closer to the action and right over the valiant little chamber orchestra. That I am not alone is suggested by Andrew Clark (FT, 6 July) in his review of the companion chamber opera by Martin Butler (which I did not see) headed 'A Better Place' needs a better place.

Lucretia apparently went well at The Maltings in Aldeburgh, and though words can get lost there, the austere staging should have been appropriate. But less so on the large London Coliseum stage from where the action carried far less emotional weight than my memories of the earlier productions, less schematic as I recall, unless I am wearing my rose-coloured spectacles?

Or is it just that the work itself, which always had problems, has becomes more dated than many of Britten's others? I remember being moved by the ritual Good Nights and the Good Mornings, with the frisson that We Knew what had happened, but those on stage didn't. Before that, Peter Pears had narrated the ride across the Tiber so vividly that we saw, and felt, its driving energy towards the fateful meeting; no need for a watery video picture as supplied at the Coliseum; the music told it all. And in those Good Old Days, I think the Male and Female Chorus then kept their distance from each other, didn't have to swap the 'only' crib book of words to tell the tale, nor get mixed up with the other 'real' characters centre stage.

At the Coliseum it seemed to be going well enough, but lacked energy, so that the effect was muted, again and again. During the second half, watching the musicians, I had doubts about Paul Daniels' conducting - was he contenting himself with how the music sounded as it reached his ears on the rostrum? I think it needed sharper articulation if it was to have any hope of projecting to the farther reaches, and so too did some of the singers.

Diction was generally good, and the words came across if you knew them, as many Britten aficionados surely do. The rape scene made little impact, and Christopher Maltman seemed not sure what to do with the outsize sword with which he was encumbered to ensure he Had His Way. Lucretia's half-hearted gestures of resistance showed some signs of possible ambivalence towards her nightmare come true, and looked more petulant and irritated than appropriate for the ultimate confrontation with dark forces. Sarah Connolly however rose to the final lament for the rest of her life, of which she believed herself irrevocably robbed, and although Clive Bayley was dignified and sang well, his rich, dark tones of husbandly reassurance were bound to fail to convince anyone, and it was no surprise that Lucretia duly grasped the conveniently placed dagger.

Of the other characters, I was most impressed by Lucretia's nurse, Bianca, played by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who returned having taken the part in the last ENO revival - calm authority and steady singing, with diction and projection immaculate. All in all, an unexpectedly disappointing evening, but I left feeling that perhaps it was a case of being the only soldier in step?

Is this a work which should be kept for small-scale productions, as given at our music colleges? Following the success of Death in Venice, I await a DVD to recapture the sense of immediacy in The Rape of Lucretia, the second stage in Britten's fruitful development of the Chamber Opera.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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