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Britten The Rape of Lucretia
Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London 26 November 2004

The Rape of Lucretia an opera in a prologue and two acts by Benjamin Britten (1946) Libretto Ronald Duncan after Andre Obey's le viol de lucrece,

First Cast:
Male Chorus Thomas Walker
Female Chorus Nicola Stonehouse
Collatinus George Matheakakis
Junius Simon Lobelson
Tarquinius Jacques Imbrailo
Lucretia Anna Grevelius
Bianca Martina Welschenbach
Lucia Silvia Moi

director Jo Davies
designer Joanna Parker
lighting designer Mark Doubleday
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra/Michael Rosewell

The enduring problem with this opera is its libretto, and I do not know whether Andre Obey or Ronald Duncan should be blamed the more, or the young Benjamin Britten for accepting it? In my review of the ENO 2001 Rape of Lucretia I wrote: Is this a work which should be kept for small-scale productions, as given at our music colleges?

That reservation was vindicated by this distinguished performance in the composer's eponymous theatre built behind the Royal Albert Hall. It is a marvellous venue, a feeling of a traditional small opera house, its acoustics flattering to singers and the evocative sounds fashioned by the young composer coming up strong and clear to Seat 1 in Row 4 from their deep orchestra pit below the stage.

It was a production of uniform excellence, with no weaknesses in the casting; invidious to identify individuals, since the performances are shared with an alternative cast, as is often the way with college productions.

Diction was splendid and the absence of surtitles not missed, though one might have liked to ponder a few of the poetic flights, and the (to us) gratuitous religiosity grated; not a new observation. The detail of the imaginative use of a small chamber group was a reminder of how skilled Britten was at this first essay in an operatic genre that has become ubiquitous, after his example had showed the way and the potential for artistry as well as for economy.

The direction was notable for the movement in and out of the action of the two person chorus; beautifully managed. The rape was fudged (Tarquinius, after displaying his manly chest, staying fully clothed below) and greeting the morning sun with a flower carpet (of all seasons, as required by Ronald Duncan) was even more risible than often seen in the past. But the quality of the music redeems all, and no doubt Britten's Lucretia will continue to be raped regularly for a long time yet!

Peter Grahame Woolf

Photos: Chris Christodoulou