You see the books before you hear the typewriter. Piles of them. Books suspended from the auditorium ceiling, pages splayed as if falling to earth. And then that sound, the typewriter, and Male Chorus hard at work, dressed as Benjamin Britten may have been when he began work on this opera. The opera hasn't begun yet, but already the director, John Lloyd Davies, has made a startling observation. Male Chorus is Britten.
This excellent staging - the first by Royal Opera in its studio space, the Linbury - takes its cue from the concept of reporting and personalising history. The books are histories, poems, scriptures, and their authors - like Male and Female Chorus, the commentators in this tragic retelling - were there. They watched and recorded and may even have felt a degree of complicity in these events, which may or may not have taken place in Rome in 509BC. The offence was the rape of Lucretia, a virtuous wife defiled and so shamed by the Etruscan prince Tarquinius that she felt she could not live.
The piece is loaded with moral dilemmas, but central is the response of Male and Female Chorus to the tragedy. It's significant that Britten keeps them at more of an emotional distance than Lloyd Davies does, though when Tarquinius rides to Rome, like an arrow "straight as lust", with the clear intention of adding Lucretia to his conquests, Male Chorus in effect becomes Tarquinius, savouring the anticipation, tasting Lucretia's name and singing it in yearning melismas.
Tarquinius is the beast within Male Chorus, who identifies with him to the point of desire. That's surely Britten's sexuality involuntarily at work. He wants to be Tarquinius as surely as he wants to be the object of his lust: Lucretia. At the start of Act II - the moment of the rape itself - Lloyd Davies lays out a long line of giant arum lilies like signposts to the door of Lucretia's chamber. It's a startling image, beautiful and repellent.
The design, which resembles an elaborate board-game, works well. A neat touch is the golden frieze displaying Lucretia's words of shame writ large in Latin. No question, the Linbury is a great space to work with. The 13-strong instrumental ensemble sounded well, and the voices bloomed.
Christine Rice's Lucretia looked and sounded handsome, with a voice made more telling by the depth of feeling that governs it. Grant Doyle's vocal and physical elegance slightly played against his portrayal of Tarquinius, but the allure was there. The rest of the cast, all participants in the Vilar young artists scheme, were strong.
Which brings me back to Male and Female Chorus, Hubert Francis and Victoria Nava. At the close, Britten has Male Chorus finding hope in Christian philosophy, but Lloyd Davies' Male Chorus finds only despair. The unjustifiable cannot be justified.
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