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The burden of a guilty mind

06/21/2001 -  and 27 June, 4, 7 July 2001
Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia
John Mark Ainsley (Male chorus), Orla Boylan (Female chorus), Clive Bayley (Collatinus), Junius (Leigh Melrose), Tarquinius (Christopher Maltman), Sarah Connolly (Lucretia), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Bianca), Mary Nelson (Lucia)
ENO Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor), David McVicar (director)

Britten's 1946 chamber opera The rape of Lucretiastill has power to make an audience uncomfortable. Its basic plot is viscerally disturbing, apparently appealing to the conventional gender and sexual values of earlier opera: a tyrant rapes a noblewoman and she kills herself in shame. And the Christian framework provided by the Male and Female Chorus adds a layer of defensive commentary, suggesting that Lucretia's self-sacrifice makes sense as a kind pre-Christian passion or martyrdom. Yet there is a sense that the destruction of the defiled innocent does not make everything right. Although shame is a pre-Christian idea, it can be difficult to disassociate it from Christian sin when the source is sexual, and there are hints that Lucretia as a sexual being is complicit in the rape: she embraces Tarquinius in her sleep, believing him to be her husband, for example, and on recognizing him utters the puzzling line "In the jungle of my dreams, you are the Tiger". And of course she is the sacrificial victim for the founding of the Roman republic, the antithesis of the kingdom of God.

But so soon after the end of the second world war, it is possible that a different set of ideas was in play. Lucretia can also be seen as an fairly conventional allegory of Rome, invaded by the Etruscans and finally stirred by shame to action. As a note in the ENO programme points out, expressions such as "the rape of Poland" were familiar at the time. If there is an analogy with Poland specifically, then Tarquinius represents Nazi Germany and Junius Britain, a reassuring, if still painful, analogy for a British audience. Certainly, the general theme of tyranny, inseparable from military machismo, is pervasive, embodied in the character and music of Tarquinius. In some ways, The rape of Lucretia feels like a work of the 1930s, in its sense of oppression and utopian rebellion, as well as in its form, action mixed with narrative. Yet the music is, if not timeless, then often so beautiful that only a few mannerisms (a "what a beautiful morning" ensemble at the start of the last act, for example) suggest a date in the 1940s.

David McVicar's production for the ENO has a painterly quality that reinforces the allegorical sense of the opera up until Lucretia's final appearance. The costumes and visual feel are generically Italian, and the characters are types, often posed in character. The Male and Female Chorus wear more modern dress, and have a booklet, perhaps a guide book as they inspect the exhibit in a museum. The Male Chorus tries to make everything make sense, until the rape itself, when he seems totally shocked, turning away and looking around pruriently. The Female Chorus is totally engaged in the action and sympathetic, singing a lullaby over the sleeping Lucretia. When Lucretia finally appears, in purple, she at first resembles a heroic allegory, as before but with more grandeur. But her suicide is an act of human despair, and the frozen figures that surround her as the Choruses try to make sense of everything are far from heroic, expressing pain and confusion.

The performances were uniformly excellent. The chamber orchestra, made up of members of the ENO Orchestra, gave the austere music great substance, filling the Coliseum without difficulty. Sarah Connolly as Lucretia was powerful and uncomplicated, and in the end utterly heartbreaking. The other singers were equally fine, with Orla Boylan particularly moving as the female chorus and Christopher Maltman terrifyingly muscular as Tarquinius.

The only real problem with the performance was that a large proportion of everybody's words disappeared into the space above the Coliseum's stalls. For some reason, the ensembles fared better than the solos.

H.E. Elsom



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