In the dying minutes of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, Male and Female Chorus try to make sense of the tragedy. "Is it all?" asks Female Chorus. "It is not all", responds Male Chorus, suddenly drawing Christ's Passion into the equation like a last resort. This is the moment where we're looking for answers, for consolation, for hope. But all Male Chorus can offer is a creed. It's one of opera's great cop-outs, this Epilogue. Or is it? It's the first question I ask David McVicar, the director of English National Opera's new production, which opens the Aldeburgh Festival tonight. The answer, he says, rather depends on who is really speaking here: the character of Male Chorus, or Britten himself?
We are talking in a rehearsal room in Holloway, north London. Sarah Connolly, his Lucretia (one of our most exciting rising stars), is shortly to join us. Rehearsals have not yet progressed to the point where the ambiguities of this final scene can be fully unpicked, but McVicar knows that it's the key to understanding the opera. "I think that it is not by accident that on the title page of the score there is an injunction: 'Male and Female Chorus comment upon the action but do not take part in it.' That negative is so typical of Britten's personality. It's a 'no access' sign that I looked at and thought: we're going in there..."
The Britten Estate will probably wish he hadn't. But McVicar is fiercely unrepentant. It's only by boldly going where Britten would not have you go, he says, that the opera begins to yield up its secrets. "You begin to understand how deeply this opera is about his own personality, his own self-loathing. It's the dichotomy between the Dionysiac and Apollonian side of his nature. And the extent to which his Christian beliefs are compromised by that dichotomy. Male Chorus is Britten. And because of that, he needed to do everything he could dramaturgically to detach Male Chorus from the opera. Because Male Chorus experiences very dark emotions through the opera, because he lives vicariously through Tarquinius and has an almost erotic yearning towards Tarquinius. Tarquinius is the beast within Male Chorus."
So it's a dark and forbidding place that McVicar is taking us. But he does have this extraordinary sense of direction. And drama. Without the active involvement of Male and Female Chorus, The Rape of Lucretia is crippled; it's intrinsically non-dramatic. Which is undoubtedly why it so often flounders in the theatre. McVicar has latched onto the fact that Male and Female Chorus keep singing, in canon, the words "We as observers stand between the present audience and this scene". It's a mantra. It's the rule that cannot be broken.
But it must, and will, be broken Tonight at Aldeburgh, on Britten's own patch. Tarquinius's Ride to Rome will be one of those moments where Male Chorus will assume the Etruscan despot's physical persona, enter his world. The name Lucretia will flow through Tarquinius's brain. Male Chorus will pick it up, taste it on his lips, sing it a yearning melisma that shall achieve its most erotic manifestation as Tarquinius's stallion flies like an arrow "straight as lust". The Britten Estate may indeed wish he hadn't gone there.
But it should know, and know well, that McVicar is not a sensationalist but a truth-seeker. His productions to date among them his pitch-black, scabrous realisation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd for Opera North, Puccini's Madama Butterfly for Scottish Opera, Handel's Alcina and Massenet's Manon for ENO have been remarkable for isolating that one core element on which the whole piece hangs. With Sweeney it was the credibility of Mrs Lovett as a woman (a sexually active woman), not as a pantomime dame; with Butterfly it was the concept of waiting Cio-Cio-San waiting, if you like, for the phone to ring; with Alcina it was more a question of simultaneously celebrating and stripping away the conventions of 18th-century opera, not least the dance elements, and taking a long look at what really lies beneath the elaborate wigs and frocks.
So here we are in the early stages of Lucretia rehearsals; a cast, an empty rehearsal room. It looks like McVicar has the key to the piece. What else does he bring with him? "I'm winging it every day. I'm going with a bundle of instincts. I'm going in determined to find America. I know it's out there somewhere. I've got a compass..." But no maps. This is an adventure. McVicar sets himself up as an audience on a voyage of discovery. He uses the word "aperçu" to describe those breakthrough moments where suddenly a piece of text becomes so clear it's almost painful.
Being an ex-actor helps . He knows the practicalities. For one thing, he frees his singers to make their own choices. He doesn't criticise, he offers guidance ("That's interesting, hold that thought, but what about this?"). He's only interested in growth. Criticism, worse still irritation or anger, will only close down someone's possibilities. And that's the last thing he wants to do. He says it's all about creating an atmosphere that is so congenial that performers can play like kids. That's where meaningful interaction begins. He's only ever encountered one singer who really didn't want to play, and that was in Russia, at the Kirov. We can judge for ourselves who it was when McVicar's Kirov production of Verdi's Macbeth arrives in London next month.
McVicar's road-to-Damascus conversion to opera came with the now legendary Patrice Chereau staging of Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth in the 1970s. Like so many of us, he saw the television films and was blown away by the quality of the acting, so truthful as to withstand even the closest scrutiny of the cameras. Paradoxically, Wagner is still a problem for him. Why? "Because the most interesting character in his operas is Wagner himself. That's true of the Britten operas, too, but the difference is, Wagner knows it. He's forcing his personality upon us whereas Britten is fighting against it. Britten encodes his operas to try to prevent us from finding out that it's all about him. That's what is so intriguing about Britten the fear of being found out is what makes you want to find him."
Controversial thoughts. McVicar has a few. That opera as an art form is effectively dead, that it died when it stopped being a commercial proposition, when the operatic "song-writers" stopped writing the "songs". He makes a notable exception of Jonathan Dove's Flight and, of course, shows such as Sweeney Todd. The point being that Sondheim is a song-writer; the drama is intensified through his songs just as it always was through operatic arias.
He has a point, though on the strength of that argument I'm not sure why he ever had a problem with Verdi (which he did). Because Verdi, he suggests, is more specific about the emotions than Handel. McVicar is in his element with Handel, indeed with the 18th century in general. Kicking against the stylistic constraints (which he finds more, not less liberating), going with the arias, making a dramatic journey of the da capos . "It's wild," he says. Which is rather as he himself comes over, but only on account of the fierce energy he projects. You would think singers might find that intimidating, but not a bit of it.
Sarah Connolly has now entered the room. She throws an arm round McVicar and waxes lyrical about the "gentle, generous, positive environment" of his rehearsals. We return to the vexed question of Lucretia' s final scene and suddenly our interview is, in effect, a rehearsal, ideas tossed freely back and forth. "Would she have shagged Tarquinius had she been free?" asks McVicar provocatively. "Isn't this opera really about the stultifying repression of English society in the first half of the last century?"
Connolly is quiet, thoughtful, contained, just as she is on stage. Few singers pull focus like she does (as Mark Morris learnt to his cost when ENO collaborated with him on Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). "I think Lucretia is forced to confront her own desires in this opera; she is the epitome of every bored housewife who never fulfilled her potential." McVicar cites the scene in Brief Encounter where Celia Johnson, feeling guilty and irredeemably soiled, utters the immortal words, "People were looking at me. I felt like a common shop girl."
"Doesn't that say as much about Noël Coward as Lucretia says about Britten?"
The following day's rehearsals would be interesting.
'The Rape of Lucretia' is at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape (01728 687110) tonight and Monday, then at the Coliseum, London WC2 (020-7632 8300) from 21 June