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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Rape of Lucretia - opera in two acts Op.37 [116:26]
Full Performers: Female Chorus - Catherine Pierard (soprano); Male Chorus - Nigel Robson (tenor); Lucretia - Jean Rigby (alto); Lucia - Patricia Rozario (soprano); Bianca - Ameral Gunson (mezzo); Tarquinius - Donald Maxwell (baritone); Junius - Alan Opie (baritone); Collatinus - Alastair Miles (bass)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. Goldsmiths College, London, 5-8 July 1993
no text or translations included
CHANDOS CHAN 241-51 [52:12 + 64:14]

The Rape of Lucretia was Britten's first chamber opera, following the success of Peter Grimes but looking forward very clearly to the operas and "parables" that followed it. For many years it was regarded with some critical disdain, especially for its libretto, but now it appears to be more generally accepted as one of the composer's most imaginative and dramatic works, full of vivid and varied music. Extended excerpts conducted by Reginald Goodall were recorded soon after the premiere and an early live performance under the same conductor is available. The composer's own later recording lacks the immediacy of those early recordings but has the immense advantage of Janet Baker as Lucretia. The present recording also has much to commend it but is sadly lacking in dramatic tension or immediacy.

The cast is dominated by Jean Rigby's admirably portrayed Lucretia, warm but positive in a role that can seem monochrome in character. She lacks the warmth of voice of Janet Baker or Kathleen Ferrier but has a poise and dignity in the role that make up for it. The three men are all well sung but more contrasted voices would have helped, in the first scene especially. Patricia Rozario is well cast as Lucia, well contrasted with Ameral Gunson as Biana. The roles of Male and Female Chorus are well sung by Nigel Robson and Catherine Pierard but without the sheer passion or dramatic involvement heard in the early recordings with Peter Pears and Joan Cross.

I suspect that the main problem lies in the conducting of Richard Hickox. The detail of Britten's wonderful scoring for a chamber orchestra is apparent but there is a general lack of forward momentum or the kind of telling detail or characterisation that brings the score to life.

Chandos include a forty page booklet with the set but unfortunately it lacks the libretto. Good as Eric Roseberry's essay is the listener needs to be able to follow the words in detail, and the diction of most of the cast, at least as recorded here, lacks the clarity to enable this.

All in all, this is a respectable but by no means indispensable version of the opera, and although presented as part of "The Hickox Legacy" does not show this wonderfully gifted conductor at his best.

John Sheppard

Britten discography & review index: The Rape of Lucretia