The Holland Festival boasts quite an impressive relationship with Britten and his works. Tonight’s chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia was first performed at the festival in 1947 with Britten, Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier (for whom the opera was written) and the English Opera Group. Tonight’s performance with Oliver Knussen at the helm is another proud continuation of this tradition.

Ian Bostridge © David Thompson
Ian Bostridge
© David Thompson

The Rape of Lucretia tells a story set in ancient Rome. Lucretia’s husband the general Collatinus, general Junius and prince of Rome Tarquinius are at war, and in their camp discuss that supposedly all the women who were left behind have cheated on their husbands, apart from Lucretia. Junius eggs Tarquinius on and dares him to seduce Lucretia. Tarquinius heads back to Rome, goes to Lucretia’s house and after being received courteously by her, he heads to her bedroom in the middle of the night and rapes her. The next day Lucretia tells her servants to send a messenger to her husband, but Collatinus and Junius appear before the messenger has reached them, Junius apparently feeling guilty for what he has partly caused. Collatinus tries to comfort Lucretia, but she feels irreparably violated and ashamed and stabs herself.

The biggest roles in the opera are not, as you would expect, Lucretia or the other characters, but the male and female chorus. Tonight sung by Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton, they tell the audience most of the story, comment on it, and integrate all different parts of the story. Both singers were incredible, Ian Bostridge especially articulated his part which such beauty, understanding and passion that he stole the show.

One might think that when an opera is written for such a small ensemble that it can lose some of its power and impact. This is certainly not the case in this performance however, as The Rape of Lucretia is both musically and vocally challenging and engaging. From the very first jarring chords onwards, the music was a true reflection of the story and characters, in particular when the male chorus tells us that Tarquinius is riding to Rome, the galloping rhythm of the ensemble and in particular the percussion very accurately illustrates not only the physical act of riding his horse to Rome, but also the unrest, determination in Tarquinius’s head as he rides to meet Lucretia. The use of solo piano in some of Lucretia’s scenes adds an element of clarity and wholeness to her character, and the glissando on double bass adds extra gloom to many scenes.

The emotional highlight of the evening was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lucretia’s death. Whereas in the first half of the performance Angela Kirchschlager was good but not impressive, as soon as Lucretia’s despair began to show, so did her performance grow. In a concert-performance the singers generally have less opportunities to really act out a role, but Lucretia’s pain and sorrow was made tangible in Kirchschlager’s performance. Almost as powerful is the epilogue in which the male and female chorus wonder is this is all. The answer of the male chorus that this is indeed not all, that all suffering will have meaning in Jesus Christ seemed not so convincing, the overwhelming knowledge of Lucretia’s despair was still too fresh in our memories.