The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland moved from its main theatre into the smaller opera studio for the latest offering from the Opera School students, Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Premièred at Glyndebourne in 1949, this opera for eight singers and thirteen orchestra players significantly gained intensity by being performed in a chamber space rather than a main stage.

Lynda-Jane Nelson (Lucretia) and Douglas Nairne (Tarquinius), © Ken Dundas
Lynda-Jane Nelson (Lucretia) and Douglas Nairne (Tarquinius),
© Ken Dundas

For their Five:15 series, a pioneering project commissioning new chamber operas, Scottish Opera designed an imaginative set: a doughnut shape on two levels, raised at the back and lower at the front with the orchestra in the hole in the middle. In what is clearly continuing collaboration between the professional company and the Conservatoire, this was dusted down and used here extremely effectively by director Mark Hathaway and lighting designer Grant Anderson who took on the challenge to maintain interest with a minimum of props and no scenery.

The story is set in and outside Etruscan-ruled Rome in 500 BC. It is narrated in the third person by two individuals, playing male and female “chorus”. Within sight of the city, Tarquinius, the Prince of Rome, drinks wine and joshes with two Roman generals, Collatinius and Junius. Back in Rome, it seems wives have been less than faithful to their men away fighting the Greeks – except for Lucretia who has remained faithful and awaits her husband Collatinius’ return. Tarquinius becomes obsessed with Lucretia’s beauty and chasteness, so he slips away from camp and heads off to Rome on his horse.

In this largely double-cast production, the standard of acting was superb, with full use being made of the two levels and connecting stairs, grouping singers into tableaux at times, and at others allowing some very physical performances to be played out. The only singers in modern dress, chorus Rónan Busfield and Elizabeth Chennell, were ever-present and lurked round the set, setting the scene and commenting on the action.

Lynda-Jane Nelson as Lucretia sang outstandingly and she completely inhabited the role. Her unease when Tarquinius arrived for the night was confirmed by his pre-dawn stalking from his room to her quarters, and the eventual rape. The physical horror she conveyed in this intimate performing space elevated this to an amazingly powerful production.

Lucreita’s servants, Bianca and Lucia were thrillingly sung by Catriona Morrison and Jessica Leary, no more so than when they welcomed a bright new Rome morning with a bit of flower arranging, played out legs dangling over the front of the stage just inches from the audience.

There was plenty of fine singing from the three soldiers, Douglas Nairne as Tarquinius, Daniel O’ Connor as Junius and Bartholomew Lawrence as Collatinius. There was some excellent acting from them too, as they set down the marker of the uneasy balance of their relationship from the beginning.

In the pit, Timothy Dean drew some fine playing from the small band in this sparse and powerful score. But the performance of the night was Rónan Busfield’s male chorus, whose light, penetrating tenor and crystal-clear diction was almost made for this Britten role. When he whispered Lucretia’s name right into the ear of Tarquinius, it was as if he was placing the very spark of temptation there. For a split second, you could have heard a pin drop.

Opera up close and personal can be a very exciting experience when done this well, and I hope that the Conservatoire can build on this format which made for a very successful, intimate, and emotionally shattering evening.