A co-production between the Royal Opera and Britten Pears Arts, Oliver Mears’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia was first seen at Snape Maltings last month, before transferring to the Linbury for its London run. It’s a disquieting, uncompromising piece of theatre, though whether Mears succeeds in resolving the dichotomies at the work’s centre is debatable.
Written in 1946, the opera to some extent reflects on postwar uncertainties and trauma. Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan pivot between past and present, framing a narrative of ancient pagan violation with a Christian apologia that offers faith as consolation for the senseless brutality that’s been witnessed. Despite the power and beauty of the score, many have seen the resulting amalgam as dramatically unwieldy and ideologically incoherent.
Mears’s solution is to emphasise the underlying outrage at the work’s centre, and the influence on his thinking of Sarah Kane’s Blasted is more than once apparent. Annemarie Woods’s set shows a domestic interior subject to repeated incursions of violence from a military conflict taking place beyond its confines. The sense of toxic masculinity is established early in an unsettling scene in which Tarquinius (Jolyon Loy), Junius (Kieran Rayner) and Collatinus (Anthony Reed) brutalise a female hostage, an episode that tells us much about both Tarquinius’s sense of his own entitlement and Junius’s opportunistic resentment, but which also squares uneasily with the sincerity of feeling that Collatinus later expresses for Lucretia (Anne Marie Stanley).
This is very much a world in which women are relentlessly objectified, and not just sexually. Lucretia is first presented as something of a domestic celebrity, giving a television interview during the spinning trio with Bianca (Carolyn Holt) and Lucia (Sarah Dufresne). Later, after her suicide, Junius coldly takes photographs of her corpse for his own political purposes. Much of it is angrily powerful, but it also leaves the Male and Female Choruses (Michael Gibson and Sydney Baedke) somewhat stranded on the peripheries when they should perhaps be more central: he leafs with fascinated horror through files dealing with the tale he is telling; she obsessively clutches Lucretia’s photograph. Their religious sincerity is touching, but also seems ineffectual, which is perhaps Mears’s point.
Musically it’s extremely fine, with superb central performances from Stanley and Loy. Stanley, with her rich contralto, is dignified, vulnerable and extraordinarily moving. Loy’s Tarquinius seems all the more dangerously psychopathic for being so charismatic of both voice and presence. Gibson and Baedke are comparably strong: he is wonderfully fervent and eloquent; she offsets moments of steely authority with exquisite lyricism. Dufresne’s clear, bell-like soprano contrasts nicely with Holt’s warm mezzo. Reed sounds darkly sonorous as Collatinus, while Rayner’s Junius is all shifty elegance and duplicitous charm. Corinna Niemeyer, meanwhile, conducts with detailed subtlety and beautifully understated intensity. The playing is excellent.