Benjamin Britten coined the term “chamber opera” for The Rape of Lucretia. Despite being first performed at Glyndebourne in 1946, it marked a break from tradition, written for eight singers and twelve musicians, making it accessible for performance away from the grand opera houses. Even if Dalston continues to be rapidly gentrified, the Arcola Theatre’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival remains a cheerfully eclectic affair and a far cry from the stately formality of country mansion opera.
This year, the heatwave offers the operatic equivalent of hot yoga, not least for the performers. It’s an uncomfortable piece (in terms of subject matter and temperature) that demands attention (no surtitles to fall back on) but makes for a rewarding experience. In Julia Burbach’s astringent, pressure cooker production, the intensity never burns out in the two-hour running time, and, pivotally, it is presented with clarity.
The Rape of Lucretia is set during the Roman-Etruscan wars prior to the formation of the Roman Empire. Rome is a battleground of vicious infighting, one-upmanship, “self-coined obsequious flattery” and politicians “using a foreign threat to disguise a local evil” (no comment). Presiding over affairs is the toxically masculine Prince Tarquinius (Benjamin Lewis), who makes a wager that he can seduce Lucretia, the only faithful wife in Rome. The fetishisation of the virtuous woman, who, without knowing it, is just waiting to be tempted by an alpha male – and if she insists she was ‘ravished’, who would believe her? The #MeToo parallels are quite apparent.
We see and hear all about Lucretia before she gets the chance to speak for herself. Bethan Langford’s Lucretia is a vision, tall and queenly with her Pre-Raphaelite radiance and cascading auburn locks, dressed in a high-necked white cotton nightgown with an extravagant train that is both bridal and nun-like. A trophy wife with steel and a rich mezzo-soprano voice, she commands authority within her own realm but is powerless when awoken by a kiss that isn’t that of her true love.
The production is superbly sung and acted. The action is bookended by Rob Murray and Natasha Jouhl’s Male and Female Chorus, who are active participants in the action as well as well as voices of the subconscious. Murray in particular imbues his part with a prowling prowess, and Katharine Taylor-Jones and Claire Swale provide touching support as Lucretia’s capable servants in their peaceful, all-female world.
Conducted by Peter Selwyn, Orpheus Sinfonia provide a gripping rendition of the score. Bettina John creates a striking design within a moon-like circle of white fabric with six versatile red boxes and white bed linen, and Rob Price’s lighting perfectly accentuates the moody, brooding atmosphere.
Burbach’s production suggests that Lucretia’s suicide isn’t inevitable; she takes such an extreme way out because it is the only way that makes sense for her in a society that worships chastity in women yet has no faith in them, while men are free to behave however they wish. The Chorus assures us of salvation through Jesus Christ (fine comfort in a pagan world) but this promise doesn’t offer much consolation.
Whilst Lucretia is perhaps not an obvious entry-level opera for the first-time opera-goers that Grimeborn hopes to demystify, gripping storytelling is certainly as important as catchy tunes – I always say that in musicals, catchy isn’t necessarily the same as memorable, which surely applies to opera too – if not more so.
The Rape of Lucretia is at the Arcola Theatre until August 4th. Grimeborn Opera Festival continues until August 26th. For more details, click here.