Britten: The Rape of Lucretia
Composed rapidly and first staged a year after Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia was, in a sense, one of the riskiest enterprises of Britten’s career. Here he was attempting to found a new tradition of full-length chamber opera for a company of just eight singers and 13 players: borrowing vocal, textural and formal procedures from Purcell, Verdi and Stravinsky to help him articulate the drama, and invoking a neo-Baroque musical manner and an after-the-event Christian commentary to elevate a subject that in the 1940s risked censorship.
Wonderfully resourceful in sound and invention though it is, the score can seem to creak in its expository recitatives and stylistic shifts, while the florid imagery of Ronald Duncan’s libretto remains very much of its post-war, English verse-drama period. It requires a performance of the utmost intensity and cohesion to wholly convince – which, in this edited live performance from the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, it emphatically gets. Without hurrying, Oliver Knussen conducts a tight, vivid account, surpassing Britten’s own, and knocking ten minutes off Richard Hickox’s recording.
Although Peter Coleman-Wright, as the ravishing Tarquinius, sounds more forceful than seductive, Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton as Male and Female Chorus project their rhetorical commentaries with exemplary diction. Benjamin Russell as the devious Junius, and Christopher Purves as the forgiving Collatinus, offer exceptionally nuanced portraits. Angelika Kirchschlager’s passionate, full-voiced Lucretia is beautifully balanced by Claire Booth’s bright Lucia and Hilary Summers’s more mature Bianca. The radiant women’s spinning and linen-folding ensembles of Act I are among the highlights.