Peter Grimes was an almost unqualified success at its 1945 première at Sadler’s Wells, and within a few years it had been performed throughout Europe and the USA. But for Britten this success still left an unpleasant taste behind it. There had been much unpleasantness with the management at Sadler’s Wells, which left Britten unwilling to continue to work in the opera house, or indeed any opera house. Which is how we go from Grimes, with its enormous orchestra, twelve solo roles, and large chorus, to Lucretia, with its orchestra of just 13 players, eight solo roles and no chorus at all.

© Marcus Lieberenz
© Marcus Lieberenz

The Rape of Lucretia is a retelling of the classical myth, based on André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrèce, which in turn was already an attempt to pare down the traditional, large-scale French theatrical tradition. Fiona Shaw’s staging, already unveiled by Glyndebourne on Tour, brings this into the 21st century with little set, and equally few props. The military camp is merely a large sheet with two poles supporting it, while Lucretia’s Roman villa is represented by light grey stone outlines on the black, dirt-covered floor of the theatre. This simple representation of architectural structure combines black box theatre techniques with a reference to the story’s classical origins, the structure being excavated like an archaeological site by stage hands from underneath the camp of the opening scene. It also creates an additional dimension. The living characters move around the house, navigating through doors and along corridors, while the chorus are able to move through the walls, positioning them in a spirit world beyond the drama. Following her rape, Lucretia also starts to move through the walls, and not along the corridors. It’s as if she’s already dead, long before she falls on the knife.

Shaw’s production is also marked by an incredible attention to detail, with great attention paid to the music and to the characterisation of the singers. Every movement, every vocal colour change, every explosive consonant adds to the characterisation, and what’s more, all of this is supported and perfectly matched to the music. Duncan’s libretto is not the best one that Britten had the pleasure of working with, and there are many occasions where it falls into chains of abstruse metaphors or trite similes, and others where the meaning is wholly unclear. This production overcomes these inadequacies; every moment of potential confusion is given unambiguous meaning, as if it could never have possibly meant anything else.

As the Male and Female Chorus Thomas Blondelle and Ingela Brimberg sing with native quality English. Not only is it incredibly clear and intelligible, but the attention to detail in the articulation adds an additional dimension to the expression which few singers manage. These are two very difficult roles, which must be integrated into the drama, while standing outside it for commentary, and Blondelle and Brimberg achieve this difficult balance, constantly reacting to the characters’ actions, whispering to them like a conscience or weeping over their misfortune.

Standing in at the very last minute as Tarquinius was the baritone Duncan Rock, whose athletic physique features significantly in this production. His voice is strong but smooth, rounded like a fine Lied interpreter but with unquestionable operatic power. His acting is wholly unified, with movements married perfectly to diction and vocal colour. Duncan Rock has everything you could want in an opera singer and more.

© Marcus Lieberenz
© Marcus Lieberenz

As the eponymous heroine the contralto Katarina Bradić was equally impressive in this difficult role. Contraltos are almost always old women or servants, and for the beautiful, young Lucretia one has to overcome the historical baggage associated with this voice-type. Bradić does this perfectly, with a rich voice, and actor-like delivery, reinventing the image of her fach. Her tragic emotional journey is laid open and the audience is completely taken along on it.

In the pit the 13 members of the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin played fantastically under Nicholas Carter. Britten’s colourful orchestration makes the small ensemble sound truly orchestral and when it’s played as well as this even more so.

What makes this production stand out is the singers’ acting. It’s immediate, it’s integrated into the singing, and it’s better than anything I’ve seen in any opera production before. As a theatre director and actress Fiona Shaw doesn’t just create a unified thought-provoking production, she turns all her singers into actors. This is what opera needs in the 21st century, and Shaw proves that this doesn’t detract from the musical experience, but enhances it in ways you can hardly imagine.