Glyndebourne’s new Rape of Lucretia is a critical success
FIONA SHAW’S new production of The Rape of Lucretia has received enthusiastic reviews: the Observer calls it “stunning”, the Daily Telegraph says it is “superb”, and while the Guardian was more critical, its reviewer describes the singers’ performances as “terrific”. For What’sOnStage “the singers are close to ideal, every one of them”.
The production will be on tour until December, and the Observer’s Stephen Pritchard urged his readers to “Book now”.
Duncan’s libretto has been criticised ever since the first Glyndebourne production of 1946, but on this occasion the criticism is muted, though not wholly absent. No doubt this is because the libretto is clearly good enough to carry a brilliant production.
Fiona Shaw has added to the Britten-Duncan original by giving Lucretia a daughter, to widen the distressing consequences of Tarquinius’s violence; and she involves the Female Chorus and the Male Chorus more than is usual: here, they have what the Guardian’s Tim Ashley calls “consensual sex” shortly after the rape itself: in this production they are conceived as married.
“A tiger has pounced”
The performance of Claudia Huckle as Lucretia is consistently praised: she is “infinitely vulnerable”: and “unflinchingly registers Lucretia’s agony” (Guardian). In the Observer, Pritchard says that her performance clearly answers – with a resounding denial – the troubling question as to whether Lucretia secretly desires Tarquinius:
Her delicately vulnerable Lucretia (the beautifully dark-toned mezzo Claudia Huckle) [is] horrified and disgusted at her violation.
That is how Shaw’s production counters the lines Duncan gives to Lucretia: “In the forest of my dreams / You have always been the tiger”.
Rupert Christiansen has a slightly different view of this Lucretia:
The rape is as desperately exciting as its aftermath is desperately sad. […] A tiger has pounced, and the experience has shattered her ability to love.
Yet Christiansen says one very odd thing: he suggests that Shaw has cut some of Duncan’s words. Would she not then have cut some of Britten’s music? This, in any case, is what he says:
But Shaw isn’t interested in symbolic abstractions, and she has strimmed away the thickets of poetic verbiage that clog Ronald Duncan’s arch libretto: what she exposes are people in situations all too familiar throughout the Second World War.
Indeed, but cutting Britten’s music? Surely not.
The design of the production is an archaeological site, best described by Christiansen:
In Michael Levine’s simple but beautiful setting, the stage becomes an archaeological site – a bare square of earth which is being excavated to discover ancient truth, its partially covered lineaments pitted with traps and hard to navigate. (Telegraph)
The usual misconceptions about Ronald Duncan’s contribution continue to be repeated. Mark Valencia believes that Duncan was responsible for the Christian theme, when it was Britten who insisted upon it. Valencia writes, unkindly and inaccurately:
Duncan's Christian accretions to this tale are platitudes that possess an illusion of depth because the musical setting is so moving.
And at least one critic believes that the role of Lucretia was “written for” Kathleen Ferrier, when it is well known that the part was written before Ferrier auditioned for it. (See my discussion here) In the Independent Michael Church wrote:
Behind Claudia Huckle's compelling Lucretia one really can sense the distant presence of Kathleen Ferrier, the great contralto for whom this role was written.
Duncan “the guilty party”
Mark Valencia is harsh towards Duncan:
Ronald Duncan's libretto is the guilty party. Like Aschenbach’s strawberries in Death in Venice it is musty and over-ripe. Writing for music is craft, not poetry: it should inspire the composer, not do his job for him – a point upon which Britten would later insist when collaborating on a trio of operas with Myfanwy Piper, a compliant grafter who worked to order. (What’sOnStage)
Yet in his recent biography of Britten, Paul Kildea argues persuasively that what Britten required was opposition of the kind he got from Montagu Slater when writing Peter Grimes: “Slater arguing every toss was what Britten needed”, and that his working relationship with Duncan was too comfortable.
A critic named David Nice is unkindest to Ronald Duncan’s libretto; but his review is so different from the others – he emerged into the Glyndebourne garden “unmoved and a little repelled” – that he is less easy to take seriously. Every reviewer except him found Nicholas Collon’s conducting to be excellent, for example. And he was alone in disliking Britten’s score, writing in an extraordinary passage:
That Ronald Duncan’s libretto was much, much worse in its gaucheries and pretensions than I’d remembered (how many excruciating examples do you want?). That the cor anglais passage tracing the raped Lucretia’s shame before patient husband Collatinus seemed so phoney, the ending – musically justified at least – so glib. (theartsdesk.com)
Elsewhere he asks if his dislike of the production was “my own temporary blind spot”, and one is tempted to reply in the affirmative.
Duncan’s libretto is skillfully defended by Alexandra Coghlan, writing in the New Statesman:
Ronald Duncan’s libretto for Lucretia is traditionally named as one of the opera’s big issues. Wordy, certainly, but also spotlight-specific in its images and musical moulding of language, I’ve never seen the problem.
It is Coghlan who gives the best account of the opera’s last moments, where the Romans in the main story ask “Is this it all?” – implying that death ends everything – and the epilogue, which asserts “It is not all” because it is Christ who turns round Stoned with our doubt and then forgives us all.
Coghlan describes what is evidently the director’s closing coup de théâtre, the discovery of Christ on stage:
And what of the opera’s afterthought of a Christian metaphor, the Christ-figure unearthed in the closing moments of Shaw’s excavation? Unsatisfying.
But Shaw’s production is still not wrong. The music and the libretto tell a genuine story:
But this in exactly the way it should be, the way Britten’s score and operatic structure require it to be. We close still questioning, still railing against the senselessness of it all, the inadequacy of an explicating morality. Shaw’s production sheds light by retaining the opera’s darker corners. As solutions go, it’s elegant indeed.
There could be no better justification of the achievement of Duncan and Britten.