The major work by Britten in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival was his third opera, The Rape of Lucretia, in two concert performances on the Maltings stage. The cast was stellar: Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton singing the Male and Female Chorus parts, Angelika Kirchschlager singing Lucretia, Peter Coleman-Wright Tarquinius, Christopher Purves Collatinus. And between them they produced some absolutely wonderful singing, of which more anon. But to me the stars of the evening were the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble and their conductor, long associated with Britten and with Aldeburgh, Oliver Knussen. Under his loving direction the specially assembled group of players, impeccably led by Clio Gould, produced as ravishing and as exciting an account of Britten’s score as I have heard for a long time. The luminosity of the music, the extraordinary textual effects, the ethereal sonorities of this “perfect balance of changing moods” as Imogen Holst once wrote to Britten himself were all brought out to perfection. It was an absolute feast for the ear.
The Maltings stage was set logically, with the 13 members of the orchestra spread conventionally across its wide expanse, the Male Chorus and Female Chorus frontstage right and left respectively, and with the remaining soloists on a low platform at the back of the stage, behind the players. The two Chorus singers are meant anyway to comment on, but not participate in the action, so this arrangement of forces made dramaturgical sense: but it has to be said straight away that audibility of the libretto suffered greatly from the singers being positioned behind the players (I was at the second performance). Even though Britten set Lucretia sparingly, with one instrument per part (string quintet and wind quintet, plus harp, percussion and piano continuo), the sheer volume of noise a group of 13 orchestral players can produce makes life hard for the solo singer! Bostridge and Gritton fared best, being downstage front of the players, but Kirchschlager was not always easy to follow, and the sung ensemble passages were certainly indistinct. So there was a miscalculation here: and if ever a surtitle machine would have come into its own, this would have been the occasion!
Bostridge sang the Male Chorus with huge accomplishment. Like many, I sometimes find his mannerisms hard to watch and I sometimes also find his vocal line too studied, too well enunciated a sound, to be totally convincing. But not so here – he tackled the role with great energy, fluency of expression and a fabulous range of colour in the voice. Bostridge always moved the part along, always gave a sense of urgency to his narrative and sang the part as well as I have heard him sing any part for years. A terrific performance.
Opposite him, Gritton produced a warm, well focused sound, diction occasionally a shade lacking in the resonant acoustic, but a lovely expressive melodic line made her a pleasure to hear. Her voice continues to grow and I found her performance assured and sophisticated. She also blended extremely well with Bostridge, each listening carefully to the other in those exposed duet-like passages that comment on the unfolding story and tell the moral of the tale. The vocal/orchestral dynamic at these moments was particularly successful.
I found myself wondering whether or not this is really her role as I listened to Kirchschlager as Lucretia. She has a striking mezzo voice but I often found it lacking in incisiveness, a problem compounded by placing her in the middle of the backstage platform. In the lower lying passages she moved almost into Sprechgesang, articulating Ronald Duncan’s wordy libretto with venom but not as musically as I have heard the role sung before. I still remember vividly the way Sarah Connolly sang Lucretia at the Maltings ten years ago, colouring not only the notes but the words with every breath. By comparison, Kirchschlager was a shade monotone and unexpressive – she certainly did not give a finished performance.
By contrast, Purves as Collatinus was in fabulous voice: he encompasses both ends of the role with ease, produced at times a noble, at others a ringing baritone that for once made Collatinus something more than the wimp he can appear to be. His diction was precise, the energy in his sound impressive. This was luxury casting and a great sing.
If Purves produced a beautiful sound, the same cannot be said for Coleman-Wright as Tarquinius – deliberately so, I suspect - but his dark timbre suited the role to perfection and he exuded menace and the power of athletic seduction at all the appropriate moments. Coleman-Wright also gave an ‘acting’ performance, making the most of his text and projecting his character strongly.
Benjamin Russell as Junius was in august male singing company, but you would not have known it from the nicely assured performance he gave. His voice is expressive, his projection of text intelligent and his sound wonderfully warm and clean. I have not heard him before: I should like to do so again.
Equal strength in minor roles came finally from Lucretia’s two companions, Bianca and Lucia. In the former role Hilary Summers impressed with a full, rich contralto sound, beautifully resonant against the soft strings and woodwind that accompany her. In the latter, Claire Booth managed to spin a filigree high soprano line of great delicacy and beauty: the ensemble passages for the ladies were particularly atmospheric and contained some fine music-making by singers and players alike.
Knussen conducted with understated authority, revealing (as fellow composers often do when they conduct) with great clarity the masterly structure of Britten’s score. The raw, energetic, exciting passages contrasted sharply with the soft, dreamlike periods of meditation and poetic beauty. And lots of little orchestral details emerged more prominently from the onstage orchestra than they do from the normal orchestra pit: the repeated figurations on the harp in the first act, the deep woodwind sonorities in the second, the string glissandi that are later to recur so tellingly in Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice. All of these were fabulously well-played and served once more to remind us what a master orchestrator Britten was, and how he could conjure the most incredible musical and dramatic effects from tiny combinations of instruments. Especially with a group of players of the calibre we had assembled here.
There were certainly some five star aspects to this Lucretia (and a subsequent hearing of the Radio Three broadcast, with microphones ironing out the problems of singers’ diction, points this up), but the overall effect in live performance fell just short of a perfect account of this wonderful piece, for the reasons stated. How extraordinary – and how wonderful – that it premiered in Glyndebourne in 1946. And how lucky we Snape Maltings regulars are to have had the chance to hear it, in very different productions, three times in the last decade!