The Rape of Lucretia (Benjamin Britten)
Australian Opera Studio
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera will never be listed in opera’s Top Ten for popularity – nor in opera’s Top 100 for that matter. No one is ever going to sing bits of it in the shower. It’s devoid of catchy melodies in the conventional sense and Ronald Duncan’s libretto (this was his first attempt to write a text for opera) is often pretentious. And its overlay of Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness is awkward and contrived for a story set in 500 BC.
What does make Lucretia fascinating and likely to endure is Britten’s endless inventiveness, a marvellously detailed, constantly diverting vocal and instrumental score.
It is very difficult to bring Lucretia off successfully. Even seasoned professionals find it daunting. How, then, did the youthful musicians of the Australian opera Studio fare? With minor reservations, remarkably well, so much so that I was constantly surprised and impressed at the way both singers and instrumentalists steered a way through some of the most intricate and difficult episodes. Indeed, if ever there needed to be evidence that the AOS is doing good work in preparing young musicians to cope with the realities of the profession, it is here in abundance.
There’s not a weak link among the eight singers. Not all are at the same level of development yet but it is clear that they had been carefully prepared for the demands of their respective roles.
Britten uses two singers – soprano Aivale Cole and tenor Donald Cullen – as a form of Greek chorus to introduce the work and to comment on the action and the protagonists as the work unfolds. Cole was immensely impressive. She is a stage natural, moving around the set with relaxed authority and singing beautifully with an understated artistry that augurs well for a career in opera. Her words were enunciated with such clarity that it was never necessary to look at the surtitles to check what she happened to be uttering. Cullen, too, made a good fist of his role and with greater experience and training, his vocal line will surely become more cleanly defined.
The story line in a nutshell is this: three military men during the Etruscan domination of Rome – Collatinus, Junius and Tarquinius – are indulging in “men’s talk” about sex in general and women’s faithfulness in marriage in particular. Two of them have wives who sleep around. But Collatinus’ spouse Lucretia does not. The devil gets into Tarquinius and he rides on horseback to Rome and rapes Lucretia in her own bedroom. Overcome with shame – even though she is not at fault – Lucretia kills herself in front of her distraught husband.
Ileana Bodnaras, in the eponymous role, was in splendid voice which had an attractive, darkly mellow quality – and she came across as a figure of tragic dignity. Baritone Brett Carter as Tarquinius made of his character a lecherous, amoral and cruel figure. In the much smaller role of Collatinus, baritone David Thelander is perfectly cast. His voice is an impressive instrument; his sense of horror and grief at Lucretia’s terrible experience is given the stamp of truth.
As Junius, Korean-born Min Huh was well up to the mark in vocal terms, producing a sonorous stream of sound while radiating an aura at once macho and misanthropic – and a barely disguised sense of schadenfreude on learning of Lucretia’s fate. His diction, though, was not always as clear as one might have wished it to be.
Miriam Sharrad as Lucretia’s nurse made the most of a smaller role as did Anita Watson as Lucretia’s maid. Their trio with Lucretia in the linen-folding episode came across convincingly.
The two chorus members wear casual, modern clothing which contrasts oddly with those of the rest of the cast who wear costumes of the era, designed by Michael Betts. When not wandering across the set, the two choruses sit in a contemporary, book-cluttered, study-like space to one side of the stage which is steeply raked.
Props are down to the barest minimum – a pillow here, some sheets there, a couple of spinning wheels – and large colour reproductions of ancient bas-reliefs positioned on the backdrop. Nicholas Higgins designed the lighting.
Michael Schouten worked wonders from the pit, coaxing a largely effective response from his ensemble, led by violinist Jessica Ipkendanz, and giving crucial cues to the singers. His very real understanding of the score and sense of pace went a long way to ensuring the success of the venture. As always, director John Milson’s discreet touch ensurd the smoothest of dramatic unfoldings.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn