Continuing my struggle with Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia I got hold of the Blu-ray recording of Fiona Shaw’s 2015 Glyndebourne production. I’m beginning, I think, to see my way to understanding the problems inherent in the libretto and some of the strategies that can be used to overcome them. The more minor problem is Junius and the odd scene early in Act 2 where he seems to be inciting the Romans to revolt while acting as a general in Tarquinius’ army while, also, apparently, been in some sense complicit in the rape. So we have a two faced power hungry schemer who is oblivious to the consequences of his mischief making; whether rape or rabble rousing (a sort of Roman Boris Johnson). Most productions ignore this aspect of things and probably rightly.
The second, and much bigger problem, is the role of and relationship between the Male and Female choruses. As written , the libretto calls for them to be on opposite sides of the stage commenting on the action which results in a series of exchanges about what’s going on in which the Female Chorus asks naive questions and the Male Chorus condescendingly mansplains with a hefty dose of smug theology thrown in. It’s horrible and the last scene, which deals with the age old theological question; “If God is good, why is there Evil in the World?”, becomes intolerable.
There seem to be three main strategies for dealing with this. One is to involve the Choruses in the action so that they are, in a sense, complicit in what happens rather than observers. A second is to create some sort of relationship between the Male and Female Chorus. Thirdly, one can make the Male Chorus’ final remarks more about a desperate search for meaning and less about smug theological certainty.
Fiona Shaw uses all three of these approaches and, additionally, creates a device to link the modern audience with that of 1946 who, she argues, would have seen the problems differently. Her solution is to set the action in an archaeological dig site in 1946. The Male and Female Choruses, clearly a couple, perhaps married, observe the action from the higher level around the excavation but gradually get pulled into the action. There’s clearly some identification between the Male Chorus and Tarquinius and the Female Chorus and Lucretia. There are also a couple of extra characters; a low grade prostitute in the Roman camp and Lucretia’s daughter. This is interesting because as well as creating a further contrast between the camp and Collatinus’ home it pretty much obscures the maid/matron/crone triad of Lucia, Lucretia and Bianca. The dig setting also allows for dirt; lots of it, with characters getting half buried or smeared with it.
Within this basic framework the action plays out “by the book” with occasional careful touches that serve to create something rather different and special. A case in point would be when, in the aftermath of the rape, the Female Chorus offers Lucretia her wrap. The understanding/complicity between the women is clear. There’s also, by modern standards, something not quite right in the relationship between the Male and Female Chorus and a certain ambiguity in how Lucretia sees Tarquinius. The “How can Lucretia give what is already given” line really resonates. In short, there’s a lot to unpack which even helpful interviews with Fiona Shaw; both on the disk and in the booklet don’t fully explain.
The acting and singing are first rate. This is Britten at Glyndebourne and the cast is made up of predominantly British singers steeped in the Britten tradition. The Choruses are Allan Clayton and Kate Royal; perfect as the angsty male and the vulnerable but resilient female (it’s a bit like her Pamina in Baden-Baden). Christine Rice is a fabulously intense Lucretia with a gorgeous, smoky mezzo. Duncan Rock is Tarquinius. He has a gorgeous voice and looks (with or without his shirt) which go a long way to explaining why Lucretia might be ambiguous about him. Matthew Rose is utterly solid and sympathetic as Collatinus, never more than in a truly tender “forgiveness aria”. The cast is rounded out by Michael Sumuel as Junius, Louise Alder as Lucia and the ever reliable Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Bianca. The ensemble is drawn from the London Philharmonic with Helen Collyer at the piano. Leo Hussain conducts and extracts full value from this intensely beautiful and atmospheric score.
François Roussillon directed for video. He has a tough job because most of the time the set is very dark and the temptation to go for close ups rather than a dark blurry mess is always there and that’s what he tends to do. Even with top notch picture quality on Blu-ray one can see his point. The surround sound (DTS-HD) is very transparent and balanced. The extras include the aforementioned interview with the director and a short feature on the original 1946 production and its reception. The booklet also features an interview with Shaw as well as an essay on the “historical” context and music notes. (All in excruciatingly small type). Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
Overall, this disk makes a good case for the work with some clever strategies for dealing with the “problem” aspects of the libretto backed up by excellent performances and a fine technical package.