Glyndebourne Tour 2013: Rape of Lucretia / Britten – Review

Given the glowing accounts from the Telegraph, Financial Times and The Independent, I had high hopes for Glyndebourne’s touring production of Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Maybe my expectations were set a little high: they certainly weren’t met.

The performances didn’t let the side down. Far from it. Some of the best diction I’ve ever heard from all members of the cast made it possible to gain a deeper understanding of the opera and the musical ideas Britten employed throughout to illustrate Ronald Duncan’s libretto. The chamber group packed a punch demonstrating the composer’s austerity-driven invention at its finest.

Musically speaking, Lucretia is a rare treat. The opening sequence featuring both Greek chorus is a masterful excursion in the dark and the light, culminating in both voices intertwining in a much-needed though short-lived moment of respite. The score is littered with similarly glorious musical sequences which introduce splashes of colour in typical Britten-esque style. The extended goodnight is up there – for me – as one of the most exquisitely simple and effective musical passages ever written.

The opera has its failings – largely because of the libretto. The challenge with producing it is finding a way of containing the most obvious one: that of the Christian references clumsily crowbarred in at the end of the opera. After the searing heat, brooding sexuality and brutal violence, the sight of a crucifixion in the middle of the set felt a little like someone somewhere had looked to the person sat next to them in the auditorium and said: “Do you think that will do?” Lucretia‘s greatest artistic challenge is then finding a way to incorporate the clumsy ending in such a way that we don’t forget all the ‘good’ which has gone before it.

The setting was inventive: an excavation site embedded in volcanic soil (some say mud), from which the protagonist is unearthed. Characters wandered from room to room, following the floor plan of the villa Lucretia inhabited, in the same way present-day us would wander around a historical site desperately trying to picture what it would have been like to live there. Nice idea.

But there disappointing elements,  (as pointed out by the people I attended the performance with) such as when Lucretia appeared to forget all about the layout of the building and walk through walls. (OK, in fairness, Lucretia had gone through something truly awful come the second act, so maybe her delirium could be forgiven.) Similarly, the literal “We’re going to lay out the lovely flowers now so that Lucretia can arrange them herself.” resulted in spindly flowers strewn at the front of the stage looking less symbolic, more something bordering on the amateurish.  I’d hoped the Greek Chorus to be a little more hands-off for most of the opera until the horrors of the second act (thus making their transition from observers and commentators into ‘participants’ more striking). And, I wasn’t entirely convinced either about the death scene: I’d have hoped for something further towards the grittier end of the scale, rather than the comical.

Don’t take my word for it (completely). Three professional critics had an entirely different experience. Maybe they saw something I missed. Musically, this was a fine performance with some delectable moments. But personally speaking, one let down by the set design and ultimately by the direction.

Glyndebourne’s Rape of Lucretia tours the south of England until 6 December 2013.

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