“Since Time commenced or life began, great love has been defiled by Fate or Man.” Britten’s powerful chamber opera finishes on a note of grief and waste, relieved only partially by what might be termed ‘despairing Christian optimism’.  A bewildering, fascinating work, The Rape of Lucretia shone with conviction and beauty in this spirited rendition by the Royal Academy of Music, where strong soloists, great design and superb orchestral playing gave us an evening to remember.

At the close of the Second World War, Britten visited Bergen-Belsen while on tour in Germany with Yehudi Menuhin, giving concerts for concentration camp survivors. Britten was so shocked by what he saw at Belsen that, both immediately and for many years afterwards, he would not speak of it. But, on his return home, he composed Lucretia, a harrowing, intense, and beautiful meditation on the motivation (personal and political) behind forced aggression and undeserved suffering. Taking a classical paradigm (Livy, History of Rome, Book 1, 57ff.), Britten added two original elements: an unusual Chorus concept, and a Christian framework which ostensibly seeks to defuse the immediate tragedy by pointing us to Christ’s eventual redemption of all humanity. This makes for an oddly mismatched mood on the surface; but the secret despair behind this Christian optimism is that, if Christ forgives all sinners, then Lucretia’s rapist Sextus Tarquinius will also be forgiven, leaving her in a state of perpetual victimhood, the crime against her eternally permitted. There’s a sense of something forever frustrated here: the idea that, from Christ’s death to the present day,

“…time fled to you with hands across its eyes.
But here other wounds are made, yet still His
blood is shed.”

And those who shed His blood, of course, are the politicians: wars may end, but war is not eradicated. In Britten’s opera, as in Livy’s account, it is Junius Brutus who is the real villain of the piece, inciting the attack on Lucretia to use it for his own political ends. Lucretia may be a cipher for Europe, raped by World War II; she may represent the suffering of all concentration camp victims; she may even represent the Germans, forced into acts of brutality by their rulers; or all these, and more.

Britten’s two Chorus characters, more Shakespearean than classical in tone, seem inspired by his own experience as a Conscientious Objector: spectators and commentators, not participators, they are still implicitly and uncomfortably involved in the action by the very fact that they are witness to it, and powerless to stop it. Bradley Smith was an excellent Male Chorus: with understated, natural acting, he navigated the emotional hurdles of his strange position on stage with aplomb, his clear voice making the most of Ronald Duncan’s wonderful libretto (“The night is weeping with its tears of stars”). Céline Forrest’s luscious, elegant voice breathed similarly convincing, warm life into the Female Chorus. Though her role is demanding and draining, Forrest seemed to have endless energy and imagination, constantly up to the challenge. These parts are some of the hardest to place, and to play; Smith and Forrest are to be congratulated, alongside their thoughtful director, John Ramster, who elsewhere created wonderful choreography for a stunning linen-folding scene, and a heartbreaking flower-arranging scene, as well as the tragic rape itself. The many flowers, all plucked and soon to die, struck me as the mute symbols of hundreds of further rape victims: Tarquinius’, or anyone’s; beautiful, defenceless, doomed now to wither and die.

When seeing a work of such acute emotional resonance to the composer, it is a true privilege to be in the hands of someone who knew Britten personally, as Steuart Bedford did. Both orchestra and piano were full of depth, softness and lyricism, each note adumbrated by shadows and well-phrased smudges which made for a wonderfully clear sound without ever being cold or clinical. It was a superbly executed, deeply felt performance which lingered in my mind, and made me realise for the first time the connections between Lucretia and Billy Budd five years later.

Alastair Ollerenshaw made the most of the scheming Junius, who gets one of the brilliant libretto’s star lines, “Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity”. A tempter and a teaser, Ollerenshaw took clever and convincing control of Tarquinius (Ed Ballard) from the start, with nicely observed incipient nastiness which grew into chillingly selfish political calculation. Ballard, as the hot-blooded party boy Tarquinius, was seductive and magnetic at all times, with a wolfish air which gave his compelling performance a real edge of menace. Angharad Lyddon was superb as Lucretia, graceful and composed to start and fabulously deranged by her end, fluent and lyrical in her singing as well as a consummate actor. Kate Howden was a delightfully tart yet caring Bianca, Emily Vine a charming and delicate Lucia. Lancelot Nomura gave a moving performance as Collatinus, particularly in his final scene; his voice, rich in tone, sometimes sounded a little restrained. Though a bass voice forms a natural contrast, and should certainly be wielded with care in a small space, Nomura could safely have allowed himself some more volume.

Still, the overall quality and conviction of this production was jaw-dropping – particularly with a mere twelve days’ rehearsal. A veritable onslaught of talent: and a profoundly thought-provoking evening.