The Rape of Lucretia

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

BENJAMIN Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia was a problematic work when it premiered in 1946, the title role created for and by Kathleen Ferrier, and the passing years have done little to ease its strange mix of classical fable and redemptive Christianity. This staging by director Jack Furness, with a cast from the Masters students at the Alexander Gibson Opera School, resolves many of its difficulties, however, by dropping the pagan Roman warriors and their wives into a contemporary military battlefield hospital, with the male and female chorus characters as an army chaplain and a Red Cross paramedic, in whose voices the Christian message is sung. The double time-line is both visually striking and a familiar trope of contemporary fiction and television drama, as it could not have been 75 years ago.

The device brings the plot into a new focus, the violation of Lucretia, sung here by Lauren Young, a consequence of male perspective on female fidelity as women soldiers in fatigues are seen marching at the back of the stage, as part of the backdrop of modern warfare, before the scene of “women’s work” of spinning and linen-folding that is part of Ronald Duncan’s libretto. Less successfully, First World War poppies are later substituted for the violets, mimosa and honeysuckle in the lyrics.

Although her name is constantly in the mouth of others, Lucretia has less of the best music in the score than the genesis of the work would lead you to expect. Her first act trio with Lucia (Sara Nealley) and Bianca (Lea Shaw) mirrors that of the men earlier, and Jolyon Loy, MacArthur Alewel and Oskar McCarthy as Tarquinius, Collatinus and Junius combine more effectively here. Tenor Robin Horgan makes a particularly lucid and effective contribution as the padre.

There are some glorious musical moments, as often from the thirteen-piece orchestra in the pit with conductor Lionel Friend. The Act Two lullaby for harp, alto flute and bass clarinet with female chorus Charlotte Richardson is Britten at his distinctive best, while the vocal ensemble work was of a consistently high standard throughout.