The Rape of Lucretia, Linbury Studio, London<br></br> Folk Songs/Ofanim/Laborintus II, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Britten: feminist or pimp?
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The Independent Culture

Recitals aside, the Royal Opera's Vilar Young Artists have only been spotted in small roles: sparkling against the odds as two-minute Milliners, Bar-Maids, Peasants and Priestesses while they learn their craft alongside Covent Garden's internationally famous leads. Does their first fully-staged production at the Linbury Studio mark a change of direction? I do hope so. With a cast of VYAs and other notable young artists, and a commendably virtuosic orchestra under the cool baton of Alexander Briger, The Rape of Lucretia deserves to be a sell-out. Not only is the singing of a quality and intensity previously unheard in Covent Garden's second auditorium (thereby flattering its notoriously unflattering acoustic), the material is fascinating.

Though perpetually topical, Britten's 1946 opera is a peculiarly post-war mixture of extreme austerity, pendant sensuality and repressive morality: in the ripe, moist fall of Act I's closing scales, in the floral sentimentality of the language through which Lucretia is venerated, in the brutal contrast between sober domesticity and drunken militarism, the strident economy of the rape, the purse-lipped frigidity of Collatinus's response to it and the Male Chorus's final, futile attempt to impose a Christian moral on a pagan tragedy. Lucretia's chastity has value to every character in the opera: erotically, socially, religiously and politically. This, as much as the trauma of sexual assault, is the key to her suicide. Having been defined as one thing, she cannot survive as another: a crisis that many thousands of Britten's female contemporaries must have faced after six years of keeping the home fires burning. Was Britten a feminist? Throughout the opera he vacillates between procuring sympathy for Lucretia (Christine Rice) and pimping for Tarquinius (Grant Doyle), the "tiger" of her dreams. For some, therefore, the crucial point is how to address the question of Lucretia's complicity: a suggestion implicit in the score and unfailingly, disturbingly erotic on stage. For me, the most important moment is the final monologue of the Male Chorus, which claims ownership of her death and, as such, is the final insult. In David McVicar's clever English National Opera production, the Female Chorus (Orla Boylan) reacted with dismay and disgust to the prurient sermonising of her opposite number. Here Victoria Nava (Female Chorus) consoles Hubert Francis (Male Chorus): one of several false notes in designer-director John Lloyd Davies's production.

With sumptuous singing from Rice, Nava, Ekaterina Gubanova (Bianca) and Ha Young Lee (Lucia) - the female ensembles are as ravishingly blended as any in the recent revival of Der Rosenkavalier - and vivid performances from Francis and Jared Holt (Junius), I regret having to carp at Lloyd Davies's production. But the cast are frequently under-directed, are moved on and off stage without rhyme or reason, and have to contend with a set that is both vulgar and unergonomically designed. Lucretia's villa - all disco lighting, metallic paint, bad statuary, church candles and giant, phallic lilies - resembles the bathroom of an R&B producer. Indeed, all that is missing here is a television tuned to MTV and a fridge full of Cristal. When Lloyd Davies has a good idea - such as showing the institutional misogeny of the soldiers by having them run their swords across the belly, breasts, throat and pudenda of a nude female statue - he runs with it too far and for too long; flunking the climaxes while still in foreplay mode. Keeping Doyle on stage through The Ride to Rome only to have him pose like a body-builder in front of a paper moon is a mistake, not least because Doyle's Brat Pack prettiness and boyish physique make Tarquinius less a tiger than a kitten. (Christopher Maltman, you are sorely missed.) The rape is mishandled, the prostration of Collatinus (Matthew Rose) absurd. Could André Heller-Lopez, the only director in the VYA programme, have done better? Probably. But the voices are the lure: not one but two superb Lucretias - surely this is a role in Gubanova's future? - the sweetest, freshest Lucia and a soulful, impassioned Female Chorus. For Rice, whose insouciant voice has shades of Susan Bickley at her finest, whose appearance has the curvaceous prettiniess of the young Elizabeth Taylor, and whose acting reveals yet more intelligence in each successive role, this Lucretia is another stepping stone to an impressive career. For the Vilar Young Artists, male and female, a well-deserved showcase.

Klezmer and Zydeco aside - both fine soundtracks for cooking - I've never understood the appeal of World Music. With all due respect to the producers of Late Junction, Mouth Music and Marin Marais are unlikely bedfellows and I'm deeply sceptical of the notion that just because a listener enjoys one genre that scares the pants off White Van Man it follows that they will enjoy any other that is equally obscure. Which is a long way of saying that I didn't expect to enjoy Folk Songs - the London Sinfonietta's final contribution to Omaggio - half as much as I did.

More than many a trendy fusion experiment, this tribute to Luciano Berio had integrity and impact. Contrasting his transcendent arrangements of American, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardinian and Azerbaijani folksongs with the real thing - courtesy of Armenia's duduk virtuoso Jivan Gasparyan, Sardinia's Tenores di Bitti and Kurdistan's The Kamkars - only amplified my regard for the unique combination of daring, mischief, tenderness and respect that Berio applied to all his source material. Vivaciously sung by Katalin Karolyi and played with utter precision by the London Sinfonietta, this was a performance without a single weak moment, though Paul Silverthorne and David Hockings's account of Naturale - Berio's viola, tape and percussion abstraction of a Sicilian folksong - is the music that has stayed with me, even allowing for the previous night's extraordinary performances of Ofanim and Laborintus II. As I write, the final concert of this provocative and exciting three week series will be starting. To Esti Kenan Ofri, the Manson Ensemble of the Royal Academy of Music, to Terry Edwards, Claire Booth, the New London Children's Choir, Tempo Reale, the London Sinfonietta and Sound Intermedia then, a heartfelt bravi.

'The Rape of Lucretia': Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 4 May