A strong take on a thankless piece

The Rape Of Lucretia | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

The story of The Rape of Lucretia, even as told by Shakespeare, is not the most attractive of subjects, portraying as it does a futile premeditated act of violence with no redeeming features - which is perhaps why Britten's operatic adaptation is not one of his more popular works. That makes it all the more enterprising of the excellent British Youth Opera to present a new production of the piece in their current series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The story of The Rape of Lucretia, even as told by Shakespeare, is not the most attractive of subjects, portraying as it does a futile premeditated act of violence with no redeeming features - which is perhaps why Britten's operatic adaptation is not one of his more popular works. That makes it all the more enterprising of the excellent British Youth Opera to present a new production of the piece in their current series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Actually, it makes an ideal piece for the QEH, being on a modest scale and designed for varied venues. A blood-coloured curtain revealed Will Bowen's constructivist set centred round a staircase, with a walkway in front of the pit for the choruses to get close to the audience. Jamie Hayes' direction was clear and uncluttered, the exception the curious semaphoring imposed on the choruses, that came across as forced and artificial. Nevertheless, Caroline Childe and Christopher Steele (an exceptionally lucid tenor) put these crucial roles across forcefully.

This was a cast of really magnificent young singers. In Act 1, the three male characters put across their troubled macho preoccupations most convincingly, with some excellent diction from Junius (Rodney Clarke) and sonorous bass notes from the unfortunate Collatinus (Barry Martin), while Christopher Dixon was very much inside the part as the posturing, loathsome, but slightly glamorous, Tarquinius.

Later it was the turn of the women to portray their vision of things - most touchingly in the calm domesticity of the spinning and linen-folding scenes, before Tarquinius's unexpected arrival throws everything into uncertainty. Lauren Francis and Anna Sollerman as her attendants gave stalwart support to Catherine Carby as an impressive Lucretia, particularly in the ensemble singing with the Female Chorus which was reminiscent of the women's quartet in Peter Grimes. And the tension was palpable when the all-too-vivid rape scene approached, enhanced by the eerie sprechstimme of the Male Chorus. Catherine Carby rose to the occasion with a combination of agony and dignity as the outraged and inconsolable heroine at the most poignant moment of the drama - the only element that even begins to redeem the whole sorry tale, and Collatinus's unavailing compassion was moving.

The Christian interpretation tacked, unconvincingly, on to the story does little to mitigate its bleakness,and we may well be left asking, with the surviving characters, "Is this it?" The haunting and ingenious music Britten weaves around it, though, and the amazing sonorities he evokes from a small ensemble, were most cogently realised by the BYO under Peter Robinson.

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