Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Rape of Lucretia, Guildhall, 24 February 2016

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Collatinus – Milan Siljanov
Junius – Daniel Shelvey
Tarquinius – Christopher Cull
Male Chorus – Thomas Atkins
Female Chorus – Elizabeth Karani
Lucia – Jennifer Witton
Bianca – Elizabeth Lynch
Lucretia – Katarzyna Balejko

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
Jamie Vartan (designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)
Dan Shorten (video)

Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

I shall not beat about the bush: this was the best performance of The Rape of Lucretia I have seen. It would be difficult – indeed unduly contrived, if not quite so contrived as the opera’s wretched Epilogue – to find anything much at which to cavil in the excellent performances from Guildhall musicians under Dominic Wheeler, or indeed in Martin Lloyd-Evans’s taut, powerful, musical production. Seen in the round, the orchestra at the same level as the stage, this could be experienced almost as a piece of music theatre, and emerged all the more strongly for it. Jamie Vartan’s designs are spare but telling, Mark Jonathan’s lighting subtly doing a great deal of the work. The Chorus has been there all the time, sharp-suited singers walking around the stage, through the audience, beforehand: pensive, maybe impatient, hurrying us to start and yet delaying. Or is that all in the imagination? Who can be sure? And does that matter? We do not really know who they are, after all. But, until that final, supremely unconvincing Christian promise of redemption – Britten’s own fault: one wants to shout, ‘What on earth has this to do with Christ’s Passion? – I responded to them in a way I have not before. Kinship with the not-quite-real, yet all-too-real, qualities of The Turn of the Screw is apparent to an unusual extent.

The Romans are portrayed convincingly in near-modern dress: perhaps the time of composition, maybe a little earlier? The narcissism of army dress uniform tells its own tale, especially when we sit so close to the action. One can certainly feel the physicality, the provocative nature of an opera, which, despite its unusual – for Britten – centrality of a female character, ultimately falls back just as much as the others upon male sexuality. The domesticity of Lucretia’s realm, its illusory peace, is hauntingly caught: spinning with echoes of a past fondly remembered, soon to be savagely destroyed forever by Tarquinius’s deed. We feel, as did Britten, the closeness, the monstrousness of war; but is society always in a state of war in one way or another? Is sex also war by other means? Nothing seems black and white here; Collatinus, after all, grows into his role, into compassion and forgiveness.

The singers impressed both vocally and as actors. I could not, if I wished, have selected a weak link. Milan Siljanov, Daniel Shelvey, and Christopher Cull played the three men similarly at first, distinctions becoming later. Where Cull’s Tarquinius lost control of his actions via excellent vocal control, Collatinus and Junius pulled in different directions. Attention to words and music was exemplary. Likewise with Katarzyna Balejko’s rich-toned, imploring Lucretia: a victim with whom one could sympathise deeply, not that that would do her any good. Jennifer Witton and Elizabeth Lynch proved equally sympathetic women of the household, trying to do their best in an impossible situation, their lack of success again a factor drawing us in to their particular and general plight. Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani carefully, excitingly trod a fine Choral line between observation and participation.

That, as I suggested above, served to highlight connections with The Turn of the Screw: not just onstage, but perhaps still more importantly, in musical terms. (The distinction seemed unusually false in this case.) For not the least of this cast’s and this production’s virtues was the strong impression they gave that their decisions sprang from Britten’s highly ‘constructed’ score. That could not have happened, of course, without highly committed, concentrated playing from Wheeler and the excellent young orchestral players. The closed forms may be more overt, less complex than those of Wozzeck, but the cumulative effect was perhaps not entirely dissimilar. Figures, harmonies, rhythms lodged themselves in the mind and would not let go: like the tragedy enacted on stage. If only someone could solve the problem of that Epilogue… Otherwise, and in any reasonable sense, outstanding! I have no doubt that we shall see and hear much more from these singers; I look forward to doing so.