S&H Opera review
Britten: Rape of Lucretia, ENO & Aldeburgh, Summer 2001 (ME)
This production arrived at the Coliseum last night after rave reviews following its opening at the Aldeburgh Festival, and it certainly provides a powerful and disturbing experience. However, one has to question whether a chamber opera such as this one can be successfully performed in London's largest theatre, at least in this kind of production, which made no concessions whatsoever to the difficulty of projecting such an intimate and wordy text, with its complex narrative.
The "old" ENO production solved some of the problems by having a sliding platform on which the Chorus stood, thus projecting them physically right out into the audience, and the action mostly took place dead front & centre stage. Perhaps a table of audibility might help to give some idea of the scale of the problem; but this was pretty much how I heard it.
Catherine Wyn - Rogers (Bianca) 100%
Leigh Melrose (Junius) 90%
Clive Bayley (Collatinus)
Christopher Maltman (Tarquinius) 80%
Mary Nelson (Lucia)
John Mark Ainsley (Male Chorus) 70%
Sarah Connolly (Lucretia) 50%
Orla Boylan (Female Chorus) 30%
Imprecise, of course, but it gives you an idea. At one point, a man behind me whispered (of Connolly) "What did she just say? I need to take a rain check?" Such a lot came out as just vowels, and matters were not helped by some of the positioning of the singers. Why begin a review so carpingly? Well, the libretto is in English, so I guess most of the audience would have liked to have been able to hear most of it.
The most unusual feature of the production is the deployment of the Chorus. McVicar has decided to ignore the instruction that the Male & Female Chorus "Comment upon the action but do not take part in it...." so that we find them not only walking onto the set but seeming to influence the actions of the characters. Surprisingly, this works well, mainly because Ainsley acts with such conviction, managing to make us believe in his "character's" anguish at the events being unfolded. At one especially powerful moment, when the Male Chorus comments on Collatinus' luck, it is made to seem as though he has put the idea of spiteful revenge into Junius' mind, and "Oh, my God, with what agility....." is thereby made all the more poignant.
The Female Chorus seems to play a lesser role, hovering around the fringes of the action, and I regret to say that her singing made no impact upon me at all - disappointingly, after her triumph in last season's "Onegin." Auntie - ish (is there a female version of "avuncular?" if not, there ought to be) furrowed-brow concern was about the summit of her expressiveness.
The cast was dominated by the Tarquinius, Christopher Maltman. Phwoarr, ladies - you could almost hear the knicker-elastic snapping. Maltman has been spending many hours in the gym, and it shows. When Lucretia sings "You have always been the Tiger" one normally either sniggers or inwardly regrets such a dubious sentiment, but in this case, if most of us were honest we could easily see why this Lucretia ends up committing suicide - not from shame that she has ceased to be pure & faithful to her husband, but from guilt that she just gave in to the Prince. Pity the lights dimmed just as he was about to get the rest of his kit off! And his singing..... well, that was fine, too - muscular (!) in phrasing and rather dry in tone, he is well suited to the role in every way. For once, the Male Chorus' "Panther agile and panther virile" actually made real sense.
The other men acquitted themselves well, Leigh Melrose especially (what a pity he made such a hash of "Der Vogelfaenger....." at the Cardiff singerama) and Catherine Wyn Rogers turned in yet another superb cameo as Bianca. Sarah Connolly's Lucretia was simply dull. We are clearly so desperate for another Janet Baker that we feel we somehow have to elevate someone, and I am afraid she is not it. I still have fond memories of Jean Rigby's performance at ENO about 8 years ago - I shall never forget her heart-rending phrasing as well as the moving timbre of her voice, and her utterly dignified, quiet poise. Connolly is just not in that league, and it does not help that she looks, as someone said, like everyone's least favourite gym mistress. That aside, her performance was adequate, but she entirely failed to move me - perhaps because I could only hear about half of what she was singing.
The set echoed the powerful, stark nature of the whole concept - beaten - bronze effect base with just a few vases and discarded items of armour around, and superbly evocative and atmospheric lighting. McVicar obtained performances of startling physicality from his cast, and Daniels, in the pit, directed playing from members of the ENO orchestra that was as fine as any I have heard.
Just two examples may suffice to indicate this production's strengths and weaknesses - the lead-up to the rape scene was superbly done, the playing as taut & anxious as one could wish, and Ainsley's singing of the difficult lines was a model of enunciation and drama. The ending of the opera was less successful; in my view, the Male Chorus can sing his problematic lines in two ways - he can either declaim them in ecstatic, ringing tones, or he can intone them lyrically and quietly, almost as if he is guilty about what he is singing. Here, neither was opted for - nothing wrong with the singing per se, but the director seemed not to have made up his mind. Is the Male Chorus reflecting a triumphant hope in Christ, or is he apologetic about such sentiments? Ainsley's singing was as lovely in tone and shapely in phrasing as it usually is, but I felt that the concept of his role here lacked definition. I recall Rolfe Johnson's almost fervid declamation of those lines - he was the perfect partner to Kathryn Harries' deeply sympathetic Female Chorus, and I have to say that, much as I love Ainsley's voice and admire his graceful, un-tenorish stage presence, Rolfe Johnson and Harries set a standard that will be difficult for others to match. Perhaps the director will sort it all out along the way.
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