Somewhere outside the white fixed box set of an extremely rudimentary military hospital, a loud explosion and gunfire result in a seriously injured casualty being brought in. A cubicle curtain is hastily drawn, but we see flashes of vigorous resuscitation attempts and eventually an exhausted and upset female military medic emerges followed by a male padre, our modern-day chorus and guide to brutal events in Etruscan-ruled Rome.

Lauren Young (Lucretia), Jolyon Loy (Tarquinius), Robin Horgan and Charlotte Richardson (Chorus)
© Robert McFadzean

The Rape of Lucretia, Britten’s first chamber opera, was written in 1946 as a continent began recovering from war, the costumes in the first production sourced by using clothing coupons. To the deeply pacifist composer, the theme of religion justifying wartime acts of conflict and violence was timely. In complete contrast to the forces required for his previous opera Peter Grimes, Britten wrote for a small cast of singers and a chamber ensemble, the work with Ronald Duncan’s eloquent libretto packing a considerable punch. With similar themes resonating in the recent news, director Jack Furness’ inspired choice of British soldiers in a military war zone abroad was an innovative and powerful take for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on Britten’s classical tale seen through the telescope of time.

Robin Horgan and Charlotte Richardson were our excellent guides to the scene in Rome, almost Shakespearean commentators, detached from the action at first but eventually overwhelmed by the powerful story. Horgan’s silvery tenor breathed a padre’s wise council, but it was the more disturbed Richardson’s performance that drew the attention. Physically shattered by her military role and deeply conflicted by issues of religion and duty, her clear robust soprano added depth and an inner strength to the character.

A trio of off-duty soldiers camped outside Rome hear rumours about their wives in the city being unfaithful with husbands away fighting the cause, except Collatinus’ wife Lucretia who remains virtuous. Roman soldier Junius sees political advantage, suggesting to the obsessed Etruscan Tarquinius that “Virtue in women is a lack of opportunity”, setting Tarquinius off on his city escapade, swimming the filthy Tiber. Oskar McCarthy’s plotting Junius, MacArthur Alewel’s resonant bass as a fiery Collatinus and the huge menacing figure of splendid baritone Joylon Loy’s Tarquinius made a formidable ensemble.

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland stages The Rape of Lucretia
© Robert McFadzean

In Rome, we discover Lucretia with her servants Bianca and Lucia in a peaceful domestic scene, spinning and folding linen, haunted by the chorus as Tarquinius arrives who, as he is Prince of Rome, is grudgingly given a room. After Britten’s famous socially charged “goodnights” which end Act 1, Tarquinius washes off the Tiberian mud under a shower. The chorus explain why the Etruscans are so hated in the city and Tarquinius creeps into the sleeping Lucretia’s room. Lauren Young gave a towering performance as Lucretia, attempting to fight off her attacker, her fiery mezzo fearsome in the quartet preceding her rape, a highlight of the performance. Sara Nealley as Lucia and Lea Shaw as the wiser Bianca blended voices perfectly in the symbolic flower scene, both shocked at the drama unfolding before them. Lucretia, though forgiven by Collatinus cannot stand the shame, and kills herself, the incident sparking Junius to seek the expulsion of the hated Etruscans from Rome.

Alex Berry’s sparse fixed set was simple and effective, a central moving wall used by the chorus to alter partitions, most memorably boxing Lucretia and Tarquinius into a room of prison cell proportions. There was detail too in a fully working sink, and a bust of Collatinus modelled on Alewel, complete with ponytail. A partially open roof lattice showed Joshua Pharo’s atmospheric palette of white and amber lighting to great effect, sometimes casting sinister shadows.

Oskar McCarthy (Junius) and MacArthur Alewel (Collatinus)
© Robert McFadzean

In the pit, conductor Lionel Friend drew a first-rate performance from his band, the exposed players getting to grips with the delicate nuances so important in this work, building tension with minute attention to detail. Musicians and singers created a tight-knit ensemble with some heartbreakingly beautiful moments, the dense libretto mostly clear.

The production’s take on the chorus was fascinating: the padre oversteps his counselling role making occasional tentative advances on the medic throughout, which she repels, but the balance of physical interaction sees the man dominate the woman. The Christian perspective at end of the opera is difficult and raises all sorts of questions, not least of which is if Tarquinius is forgiven, where does this leave Lucretia? In the final bars, Furness has the padre break open a holy phial and anoint the medic, taking water from the basin and pouring it over her head, which he held back by the hair in an uncomfortable and shockingly tight grasp.

A tale of rape is never going to be a comfortable night at the opera, but the effect of the ancient story on the male and female chorus had us in deep discussion on the journey home.