The centrepiece of this year's autumn Britten weekend in Snape, Aldeburgh and surrounding villages was a new production of Britten's third opera, The Rape of Lucretia.
And what a production – by first time opera director Edward Dick – it was! Conducted by the experienced, warmly sensitive David Parry, members of the Britten-Pears Orchestra – all twelve of them – produced superlative sound that filled the 800 seat hall with the startling, chamber music sonorities that Britten packed into his 1946 score.
To hear it sung and played as we experienced Lucretia on this occasion was to marvel again at Britten's ability to weave operatic threads out of almost nothing, to create a densely-packed musical world out of suggestion, allusion and no more than the combined forces of eight singers, a string quintet, a wind quintet, plus harp and percussion. No wonder Imogen Holst wrote to Britten after the first performance: 'It is a miracle to have packed so much intensity into a couple of hours and to have achieved such a perfect balance of changing moods…' And sixty-two years later, this performance too felt like a minor miracle at times.
In a Saturday morning Aldeburgh symposium, Dick was upfront about the problematic nature of Lucretia as a piece of music theatre, the main problems being the roles of the male and female chorus, the presentation of Lucretia's state of mind over the rape itself and the religiosity of the Christian message grafted onto a work that pre-dates Christianity by hundreds of years! His solution in terms of stagecraft was to use a square platform, raked at an oblique angle centre stage, with a glass screen behind that allowed the characters in the Lucretia story to emerge and disappear as if from/to nowhere (or in Act Two to allow a highly effective piece of shadow play as Tarquinius crept slowly towards Lucretia's bedroom). The characters in the drama never leave this space. Only the male and female chorus, telling us the narrative but themselves becoming involved in it as the action progresses, inhabit both the outer stage – the world that surrounds the Lucretia protagonists – and, increasingly, the square platform itself. So they are not detached, objective observers but involved participants. They mediate between us audience and the tale that is told, but they seek to influence it and are shattered when they fail and the tragedy takes its pre-ordained course.
This places great responsibility on the shoulders of the two singers in the chorus roles. One met the challenges triumphantly, while the other showed promise but not yet the vocal mastery that the part demands. As female chorus, Robyn Driedger-Klassen gave the stand-out vocal performance of the evening. From her first, vividly-articulated couplet It is an axiom among kings to use/A foreign threat to hide a local evil, Driedger-Klassen sang with pure tone, absolute clarity of diction and vivid characterisation. She never forced the sound, but allowed it to bloom in the generous Snape acoustic – a fabulous incarnation, showing huge promise for the future. Opposite her, James Geer sang with intelligence and musicality, but his diction was not always clear and his voice did not have the incisive heft that we need in this part – unlike his female alter ego, he did not always assert the musical line in the ensemble passages. So promise, and a pleasant timbre, but not yet the finished article.
Blythe Gaissert as Lucretia on the other hand gave a vivid and memorable account of the role. She has a commanding stage presence and made the dramatic transition from assured, in-control mistress of the house to unhinged rape victim in a series of deft stages. Her mezzo has warmth and polish, but also a touch of flint: I enjoyed especially her articulation of the lower-lying passages (in a role made famous for ever by her illustrious predecessor Kathleen Ferrier). Her monotone low B to the words If it were all a dream/Then waking would be less a nightmare was chillingly effective in the scene leading up to her suicide: in this production with the help of Collatinus's pistol rather than with a knife.
Lucretia's household Bianca and Lucia were well taken by Jillian Yemen and Eve-Lyn de la Haye respectively, the former lacking only the real qualities of old age to give a rounded characterisation of the role but producing beautiful soft singing and a sympathetic timbre: this was an old family nurse whom we instinctively liked. De la Haye has a bright, soubrette-ish quality to her voice, moves well and was affecting in her growing concern for Lucretia as the mad scene approached. On the male side, Stephen Mumbert as Junius brought energy and power to the role: you could readily see him going after and exacting revenge on Tarquinius at the end of Act Two. He was however over-loud in one of two passages, losing focus as a result: the vibrancy was all there but not necessarily the control.Allen Boxer as Collatinus sang nobly and with good intensity at the lower end of the part's range: it is not his fault that (as always) I felt Collatinus to be an under-characterised role. He is too much of a good, sensible chap, too eager to mediate between his wild, brawling friends and companions. That leaves the villain of the piece, Tarquinius, strongly sung and well played with just the right degree of athletic menace by Benedict Nelson. His music is, of course, utterly fabulous and as more than one symposium participant asked rhetorically at the morning session: why is it that Britten writes his most seductively beautiful music in the piece for the scene that begins: When Tarquinius desires/Then Tarquinius will dare? Regardless of the answer, Nelson played the role with assurance and ease, his baritone commanding the space and treating us to some beautiful singing.
At the symposium, David Parry noted that this was the third production of Lucretia that he has so far conducted – 'and the best'. My own previous Lucretia was also in Snape Maltings in 2001, with Sarah Connolly and Christopher Maltman, in David McVicar's production for ENO (conducted by Paul Daniel). Did this suffer by comparison? Not at all: in some ways it integrated the problematic aspects of the piece into its music theatre whole in a much more satisfying synthesis of the disparate elements. Parry had told us that his ambition as conductor was to release the raw energy of the work, to lay to rest any notion that it is a 'genteel' take, in keeping with the immediate post-war society who formed its early audiences, on a classical legend. Well, release the raw energy he did: seldom have I heard those recurring orchestral dialogues, motifs, pointed comments on the action, so vividly and emphatically delivered. Young singers and players combined to exciting effect to demonstrate another essential truth about Lucretia, again raised in conversation by Dick and by Parry: that it is a piece about suffering, unleashed on a world that had just undergone the suffering of world war. In a production as well made as this one, this seemed entirely apposite.