Ruthless politicians using a foreign threat to hide a local evil; brutish men dismissing all women as whores; soldiers meting out violence on the innocent. The themes explored in Benjamin Britten’s chilling chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, set in ancient Rome, have a weary familiarity to present-day audiences, perhaps best encapsulated in the line: “All tyrants fall though tyranny persists.”
That familiarity was all too stark at the work’s premiere in 1946, so soon after war had consumed the world. But unlike that first performance, there’s not a distancing toga or sandal in sight in Oliver Mears’s new Royal Opera realisation, which showcases a vibrant cast drawn from the Jette Parker and Britten Pears young artist programmes. Mears moves the action firmly into the 21st century, making Lucretia a glamorous celebrity, posing for a glossy magazine shoot on a simple sofa in a charmless modern living room.
In the classical manner, Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan use a Male Chorus (tenor) and Female Chorus (mezzo-soprano) to tell us of the tyrannical rule of Rome by the Etruscan prince Tarquinius. They are constantly terrified and reach for their Christian faith as a shield against the horrors they have witnessed in the city. Duncan puts impassioned poetry in their mouths, which Britten matches with ravishing vocal lines that repeat and embellish as the story unfolds.
Mears aims to shock from the start. Tarquinius, Junius and Collatinus burst into a room in menacing camouflage, arrest a woman and beat her while they drunkenly condemn womanhood as wanton and unreliable. Only Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, is said to be faithful. The brutal Tarquinius, “tired of willing women” and consumed with jealousy and lust, forces his way into Lucretia’s home and rapes her.
The Blue Woman, another co-production with Britten Pears Arts, seen at the Linbury and Aldeburgh last July, also explored the ruinous aftermath of rape and traced a cautious path towards a burgeoning resilience, but Britten’s work sees no light, only a deeply unjust shame that death alone can end.
Outstanding in this remarkably strong cast are Anne Marie Stanley as dark-toned Lucretia and Michael Gibson as a mellifluous Male Chorus. Sarah Dufresne makes a startlingly bright Lucia, and Jolyon Loy menaces physically and vocally as Tarquinius. Conductor Corinna Niemeyer coaxes some beautiful playing from Aurora Orchestra, drawing out some plangent colours in Britten’s tightly wound, intensely dramatic score, particularly from the woodwind.
Now, concentrate everyone: Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) was Johann Sebastian’s father’s cousin and uncle of his first wife. He’s not to be confused with the other JC Bachs – Johann Christoph Friedrich, JS’s fifth son, or Johann Christian, his 11th son. All clear? Splendid. Let’s move on. We know that the young JS revered the older JC’s composing, particularly his handling of the motet form, but, being JS, he took it to another level, where it blossomed and flourished as a distinctly intimate and reflective mode of expressive devotion.
Solomon’s Knot, one of the UK’s most innovative and imaginative ensembles, examined the relationship between the two composers in a fascinating evening, staged by the London international festival of early music, which next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Art and commerce collide in this one-stop shop: makers of crumhorns, lutes, viols, sackbuts, shawms and all manner of early instruments rub shoulders with top instrumentalists, singers, composers and conservatoire students in a week-long celebration of musical exploration and performance.
Solomon’s Knot work without a conductor and sing from memory, communicating directly with each other and with the audience. It’s an exciting approach. Nothing stands in the way; we listen afresh to music we thought we knew. JS Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, Singet dem Herrn and Komm, Jesu, komm, pillars of this repertoire, became vital, animated and distinctly joyful – reinforcing the hope and consolation offered in these pieces, written mostly, we learn, for individual funerals.
As splendid as these performances were, the real fascination came in the comparisons between JC and JS’s work. The concert’s concept took its title, Fürchte Dich Nicht (Be Not Afraid), from JC’s five-part motet of the same name. Firmly in the German tradition, this charming piece, and indeed all the other examples of JC Bach’s work in the programme, felt like a route map from Schütz through Buxtehude to JS Bach. JS’s setting of similar text was altogether more elaborate and springy, full of dancing rhythms. But wait: it was probably inspired by an earlier work by yet another Bach, Johann Michael, brother to Johann Christoph. I said you needed to concentrate.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Rape of Lucretia ★★★★
Solomon’s Knot ★★★★★
The Rape of Lucretia is at the Linbury theatre, Royal Opera House, London, until 22 November
Solomon’s Knot’s concert, along with others filmed at the London international festival of early music, will be available to watch on Marquee TV from 5 December