The Rape of Lucretia finds Britten trying to come to terms with World War Two, and his own absence from the action as a conscientious objector, by evoking ideas of youthful beauty and innocence before allowing them to be brutally destroyed on stage by the ugly and unrestrained wielding of greedy power, using the structure of an ancient Roman story of virtue. The Guildhall School’s production, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, presents the piece with a stark simplicity which allows these themes to speak clearly to us, building to a memorably harrowing finale. The constant opposition of male and female in Britten’s score, as drums batter an opposing rhythm into a sinuous flute line, or the ribald exchanges of the soldiers cut across the eerie, mysterious narration from the Chorus, ensures the tension ratchets up constantly: it’s not a relaxing night at the opera, but its vicious intensity is utterly appropriate. Ronald Duncan’s exquisite libretto, meanwhile, is so meltingly poetic that I have finally decided to buy myself a copy.

<i>The Rape of Lucretia</i> © Clive Barda
The Rape of Lucretia
© Clive Barda

Jamie Vartan’s minimalist design references the trenches, with a wet-looking black mud floor scattered with dust and gravel, a wooden table which doubles later as Lucretia’s bed, and a rectangular timbered pit sunk in the rear of the stage (out of which characters periodically emerge, and into which Tarquinius discreetly drags Lucretia for the rape). Using plenty of mist at key moments, and dressing the Roman soldiers in British Army mess kit, the opera’s links to the Second World War are subtly touched on throughout, although with sharp grey suits for the Chorus, and a silver Grecian gown for Lucretia, it doesn’t feel hung on any specific time zone. It is not until the magnificent final denouement, as the sun rises over a military cemetery, that the correlation between one innocent’s death, and that of thousands, becomes almost unbearably clear. Vartan’s brutalism is relieved in other places by the more delicate feminine elements of the piece: we have a glorious spinning scene, a lyrically beautiful linen-folding scene, and later Lucretia’s garden is one of Pre-Raphaelite perfection, with extremely real grass and pickable flowers, gently pointing us to Ophelia (a rather interesting parallel). However, Tarquinius’ ride, though musically exciting, has a fuzzy video of a half-starved horse, shot from odd angles and in slow motion, which only distracts and irritates, rather than intrigues.

David Ireland (Collatinus) and Bethan Langford (Lucretia) © Clive Barda
David Ireland (Collatinus) and Bethan Langford (Lucretia)
© Clive Barda

There are two complete casts (bar Elizabeth Lynch’s well-sung old maid Bianca, who performs in both), and although the cast I saw lacked evenness, this was made up for by the outstanding quality of the best performances. The emotional epicentre of the night is David Ireland’s warmly paternal, charismatic Collatinus, sensitively and sincerely played with some superlative singing. Bethan Langford’s innocent, sensuous Lucretia comes into her own after her defilement, displaying wonderful dramatic energy: her honeyed voice suits this music well, but some occasionally hazy enunciation (particularly with consonants) can just cloud her otherwise compelling performance.

The absolute star of the night for me was Elgan Thomas’ Male Chorus, with razor-clear delivery and a vivid sense of balanced attack in his every line: this is exactly the way I like to hear Britten sung, and Thomas manages to convey the peculiar semi-characterisation of this reflective character with chilling conviction. Elizabeth Karani’s Female Chorus has some catching up to do in comparison, but grows in assurance and presence all night: her lullaby to the sleeping Lucretia is a highlight of genuine tenderness. Nicola Said is irresistibly engaging, even cute as the sweet young maid Lucia, brightly unaware of the tragedy around her.

Josep-Ramon Olivé (Tarquinius) and Bethan Langford (Lucretia) © Clive Barda
Josep-Ramon Olivé (Tarquinius) and Bethan Langford (Lucretia)
© Clive Barda

Josep-Ramon Olivé, who I have seen shine previously in comic roles, conveys the arrogance and bitterness of Tarquinius very successfully, his natural stage presence an asset; but Olivé doesn’t always have the requisite aggression to make Tarquinius truly bloodcurdling. Dominic Sedgwick shows promise as Junius, a performance which gains in presence and nastiness, and gives us a nice sense of grievance and threat, though without hitting the darkest depths of this Iago-like villain, who can (in other treatments) be the architect of the whole crime.

Challenging and discomfiting, The Rape of Lucretia rings with unanswered questions: “All tyrants fall, though tyranny persists… How is it possible that we should live? …Does this world grow old in sin alone? …Can we gain nothing but wider oceans of our tears?” The solution proposed by Duncan, Christian love and forgiveness, never sits well with a contemporary audience; and our inability to embrace his antidote wholeheartedly and unquestioningly leaves this opera all the more disturbing.