The British 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten, in his opera The Rape of Lucretia, drew on the tense occupation of Rome by the Etruscans as the catalyst for resentments that fester into jealousy and violence. Rome resents their neighbours taking control. The Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius resents both that hostility, and the happy home life of his fellow soldier Collatinus.
The shocking outcome of this simmering hatred is his rape of Collatinus’s faithful wife, Lucretia. Like many victims of such a crime, it is she who feels shame, despite her stricken husband’s reassurances, and there is a tragic outcome.
We probably know more today about sexual violence as a weapon of power than the opera’s first audiences, at Glyndebourne in 1946, would have done, despite its being staged in the immediate aftermath of a war whose atrocities would later be fully revealed. We certainly talk more openly frankly about such abuse.
Tarquinius (Jolyon Loy) is a ruthless abuser. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
That first production, while a landmark event, was nevertheless a thing of togas and columns. But at the Royal Opera House, a new production by Oliver Mears does not put the cushion of history between us and the action, but sets it in our own times, with terrifyingly armed soldiers in camouflage fatigues and khaki.
The backstory is explained, and the unfolding events commented upon, by onlookers, one man and one woman. Male Chorus Michael Gibson (tenor) and Female Chorus Sydney Baedke (soprano) are, just like us, powerless to intervene as drunken barracks banter turns nasty.
Baritone Jolyon Loy is an impressively repellant Tarquinius, a physically powerful figure used to his own way but with distressing incel views about women. Splendid bass Anthony Reed is the home-loving Collatinus amd baritone Kieran Rayner sings particularly well in this strong young cast as peacemaker Junius.
Sarah Dufresne (Lucretia) and Anthony Reed (Collatinus). Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Waiting patiently for Collatinus, the womenfolk take solace in domestic routine. Mears cleverly introduces us to the gracious home of Glossy Posse wife Lucretia as she and her companions are interviewed and photographed for a celebrity magazine. Singing Lucretia, Anne Marie Stanley’s rich mezzo-soprano voice seems to come all the way up from her heart, and there is sweetness in Sarah Dufresne’s Lucia and warmth in Carolyn Holt’s Bianca.
Britten’s scoring for only 13 instrumentalists is not limited by this economy, but has wonderfully expressive playing by the almost human-voiced woodwind, including the plaintive cor anglais, commentating piano and contemplative strings. Corinna Niemeyer conducts Aurora Orchestra, on characteristically top form.
Real thought has gone into putting over Ronald Duncan’s savagely poetic libretto, every word weighed and diction impeccable, and Mears has spoken impressively about the responsibility of directing an opera with rape as its subject, in brutal times.
Male Chorus (Michael Gibson) is powerless to intervene. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
This hardhitting production shows what opera is capable of in the modern world – heartening, yes, in its creativity, but in its subject matter, powerful and thought-provoking.
The Rape of Lucretia is sung in English with English surtitles. It is a co-production with Britten Pears Arts. Further performances are on 15,16,18,19, 21 and 22 Nov, returns only
|What||The Rape of Lucretia, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
13 Nov 22 – 22 Nov 22, Seven performances, start times vary. Running time 2hr15min including interval
|Website||Click here for details and booking|