Fiona Shaw's production of The Rape of Lucretia brings history full circle. Having formed a little opera company in the post-war austerity of 1946 to do new works as cheaply as possible, Britten wrote one for Glyndebourne with eight singers and twelve instruments. Its initial run was followed by a British tour – as Shaw's production will do.
With this work any director has problems to surmount, starting with a painfully over-literary libretto (in which "Lewd licentious lout!" and "Pagan dyspeptic pig!" unbelievably serve as demotic insults between soldiers), and ending with a sanctimonious Christian message tacked on to its denouement. But the principal challenge lies in how to present the action, with the Greek-style male and female choruses like time-travellers constantly invading the events on which they comment.
In Shaw's brilliantly convincing solution, the whole stage embodies in turn the site of a Roman camp, Lucretia's house, and an archaeological dig, with the chorus-couple's search for truth becoming a literal excavation. Michael Levine's set is an expanse of powdered black mud out of which Claudia Huckle's Lucretia is gently drawn up, looking like a pristine Pompeian statue in Paul Anderson's exquisite lighting – indeed, with its shifting suggestiveness, this lighting itself becomes a commentary on the story's shifting levels of reality.
Shaw is wonderfully served by her cast and musicians. As the Male Chorus, tenor Allan Clayton has a warmth and unfussy conviction which humanises his etiolated lines in a way lacking when Ian Bostridge sang this part at Aldeburgh two years ago; soprano Kate Valentine is ideally cast as his companion, and delivers her lullaby to the sleeping Lucretia over alto flute, bass clarinet, and muted horn with bewitching grace. Shadowing the protagonists and at times taking on a connubial life of their own, these singers discreetly bind everything together.
Shaw's soldiers splendidly transcend the effeteness of their lines – Oliver Dunn's Junius, Duncan Rock's Tarquinius, and David Soar's Collatinus are entirely believable as they banter in their bivouac – while Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Ellie Laugharne as Bianca and Lucia excel as their ghostly female counterparts. 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; Huckle's performance is finely judged, with its climax all the more thought-provoking for being understated - this Lucretia's post-rape 'shame' is existential. Nicholas Collon and his musicians bring out all the magic of this lovely work's translucent orchestration.