These days it tends to be the likes of Nero, Caligula or Elagabalus who top the list of depraved Roman tyrants. Before these imperial titans came to power, however, when Rome not only had no empire, but was a mere city-state among many in Italy, were the Kings of Rome. The regal period came to a very sudden end during the reign of Tarquinius Superbus, whose rape of the noblewoman Lucretia prompted a revolution that booted him out of Rome and turned a kingdom into a proto-democracy. It’s a vivid and gripping tale that makes for a thrilling climax of Book I of Livy’s Ab urbe condita, but in Britten’s hands the vignette becomes a dark and terrifying reflection on unbridled power as The Rape of Lucretia.

Anne Marie Stanley (Lucretia) and Carolyn Holt (Bianca)
© ROH | Camilla Greenwell

The Linbury Theatre is an ideal venue for Oliver Mears’ new production of the chamber opera for The Royal Opera in partnership with Britten Pears Arts. Mears tackles the themes at the heart of the work, updating the opera to the modern era; while he is not explicit, it is hard to avoid thinking of the testimonies that are emerging from parts of Ukraine seized by Russia. Annemarie Woods’ set is one large room, the wide lounge of a city flat which at first seems to be in occupied territory. It’s a big space, uncluttered save for a little furniture which allows for greater movement from the singers. 

The tone is immediately clear when Junius, Collatinus and Tarquinius in modern military gear storm into the apartment, bearing guns and a captured woman. She is taunted, repeatedly pistol-whipped and then taken off-stage for purposes of which the audience is left in no doubt, while a lifestyle article about Lucretia is pinned to the wall. The room is later repurposed, brightened and with the article replaced by a cheerful photo of Lucretia and Collatinus. Lucretia, elegant and composed, sings her opening as part of a media interview: the glamorous wife of a regime figure. Certain parallels with Asma al-Assad sprang to mind.

Mears’ deployment of the chorus as a pair of obsessive civilian dissenters, clutching a battered dossier and a photograph of Lucretia, clearly in the grip of trauma is a masterstroke which resolves what can occasionally seem like a dramatic hindrance to the action of the opera. Even the Christian vein that runs through the libretto – a frustrating historical anachronism – does not feel out of place here, a clutching at faith as a last resort in abominable times. The drawing of curtains for scene changes is another nice touch, narrative function combined with an almost prurient undertone, while Junius’ photographing of Lucretia’s corpse is a graphic display of someone perhaps desensitised to death, perhaps aroused by it.

The cast reacted to Mears’ challenging staging with a performative style of total commitment, both vocal and physical. Anne Marie Stanley was a tour de force as Lucretia, taking us from collected elegance to shattered victim in a devastating performance. Stanley’s diction was impeccable and there was a smouldering to her lower register, a quality akin to mezcal, that coloured and lifted her singing. Jolyon Loy’s Tarquinius drew the eye; a towering figure with Hollywood looks, Loy’s studied movements immediately conveyed a restless shiftiness to Tarquinius and imbued him with a disturbing wildness from the outset. That, combined with the mellow seductiveness of Loy’s baritone and his pointed diction, gave hints of a Don Giovanni and it would be intriguing to see Loy tackle that role. As Collatinus, Anthony Reed’s most striking moment followed Lucretia’s suicide when his hands, his whole body, shook; the kind of acting that is innate and cannot be taught. Reed has a commanding bass voice, a chilly sound through much of the performance, only warming in his final scene with Lucretia.

Carolyn Holt and Sarah Dufresne both impressed as Bianca and Lucia respectively, the fixed terror on their faces as they burst into a frantic “Oh what a lovely morning” leaving us wincing in sympathy. In a trio of unpleasant characters, Kieran Rayner somehow managed to define Junius as almost as bad – if not worse – than the others, his slighter stature making him the wimpish, peevish butt of Tarquinius’ verbal and physical taunting. Michael Gibson and Sydney Baedke were compelling as the Male and Female Chorus, though Baedke’s diction at times seemed to slip slightly. Corinna Niemeyer led a propulsive reading of the score from the pit that drove the music forward without rushing the more delicate passages, particularly at the start of Act 2.

This is not an opera that one can say that one ‘enjoyed’, but Mears’ deeply challenging production and the authenticity conveyed by the cast made this an utterly gripping piece of theatre that we were privileged to see.