Dartington, near Totnes in Devon, is one of life's idylls. Its summer schools, the hotbed of English Modernism where Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies cut their teeth, are still a joyous fusion of academic incisiveness and Edwardian drawing-room soirée.
The Rape of Lucretia is presented in the Barn Theatre - the venue for which Britten and Ronald Duncan's 1940s collaboration seemed destined, before Glyndebourne snaffled it.
Lucretia fits here like a glove. In Dartington's refurbished barn - first decked out to designs by Walter Gropius - Richard Williams's staging, overcoming a gravelly, metallic acoustic that over-amplified the conductor David Angus's attentive ensemble (lulling strings, bewitching woodwind solos) proved beautifully direct and compact. David Collis's designs, sensitive to the space - a softly sanded rectangular floor fronting a detailed Corinthian column that shifted moods amid yellow and lilac half-light - suggested just enough of Rome or Pompeii. Even the flowers, including orchids, which Jennifer Johnston's ravaged Lucretia lambasts like Agathe's black wreath in Der Freischütz, and the red roses her loyal maids laid round her corpse, served the show magically.
Dartington's stagings are a threshold for young ex-college singers poised to carve out careers. A brace I'd gladly follow are Katrina Waters, whose Bianca had touching, mellow, mezzo-ish tones, and Louise Ratcliffe, who gave us a beguiling Lucia. Somehow the stage lit up whenever this chirpy duo appeared, gesturing like dancers inspired. Ratcliffe's lark-like high register is never shrill, always bracing; both enchanted, impeccably tuned, in Britten's ironic morning-after aubade. Despite anomalies ("my child", she calls Lucretia, who'd played at her knee), Waters's Bianca seemed no crone, but pretty much a filly, too. What a sweet pair to brighten one's Roman closet.
To the Ferrier role, Johnston brought grace, stature and nobility. Best of the rest was Leandros Taliotis's oily, slightly unsexy Tarquin, a rutting Iraqi playboy crossed with a Serbian thug, who brought a Pearsian floridness to this (paradoxically) baritone role. I didn't warm to the male and female chorus (Colin Judson, Sarah Estill). Their posing as tourists didn't work, and Britten's subtle chromatics grate when approximately tuned. But Michael Sinanan's sombre Collatinus emerged well. He's worth casting in some unlikely and challenging roles.
Dartington continues with Handel's 'Orlando' at the Great Hall, Dartington, Devon (01803 847070) on Thursday, Saturday and Monday 11 AugustReuse content