Edinburgh: This tragic no man's land

YOU WOULD have thought a concert performance of Britten's Rape of Lucretia would highlight its character as a kind of sacred chamber cantata, with its two storytellers, its intimate group of accompanists and its Christian valediction. It is a very good stage piece, but stage performances are always hampered by the "literary" quality of the male and female chorus, soloists who narrate and comment on the plot like the Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion.

The effect of this performance was quite the opposite. You still sensed the stagy nature of the drama, but the two choruses were more embarrassing than ever, even though one of them, the Male Chorus, was the utterly convincing Ian Bostridge. He sounds a bit like Peter Pears, for whom the part was written, and exaggerates the emotion, as Pears did.

The Female Chorus (Geraldine McGreevy), on the other hand, sounded watery; she seemed to be telling a bedtime story to some kids. Maybe this was where the problem lay, for the original Female Chorus was Kathleen Ferrier whose style was deadly serious and a bit agonised. She was a moral and musical grown-up, and spread her stiff-backed rectitude over everything.

This performance, though forcefully conducted by Donald Runnicles, never quite locked on to tragedy or comedy; the three men had stepped out of comic opera, the three women out of Gluck. John Relyea, as Collatinus, was a pompous public-school boy declaiming this mannered libretto with a straight face. The tenor, Neal Davies, was a cynical Junius, cheerfully feeding people with what they want to hear. But it was Simon Keenlyside who stole the show as the drunken, swaggering Tarquinius, a comic triumph, sneering at the lewdness of the Roman women while moaning with desire. The aspect of hymnal virtue, the Ferrier element, was completely up-ended by this rattling performance.

You always suspect the female parts came from an upper middle-class drawing room and without costumes or sets, it was much more obvious. Bianca (Catherine Wyn Rogers) sounded like a preview of Lady Billows (from Albert Herring), Lucia was a well-bred debutante, though Lisa Milne made much of the lyric parts, notably the scene of folding linen where Runnicles sculpts an image of perfect serenity.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, as Lucretia, delivered the goods in the end with an excellent stage death. Previously, she never quite settled into the essentially melodic lines, snapping at the consonants and phrase-endings and losing Britten's soft colours.

The opera was accompanied by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, sounding like yesterday's porridge, lumpy and insipid, except for a cool account of Britten's veiled harp part by Eluned Pierce and some sharp and punctual percussion playing from Caroline Garden. However, this was no cantata but rather a failed stage performance.