The Rape of Lucretia, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

Witness the perfect treatment of a woman defiled
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The Independent Culture

At first glance, Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia epitomises an art-form that has for 400 years fetishised victimhood, objectified women, and rewarded their sexual activity with death. (Consensuality is rarely a material factor.) But in this opera there is no sense ­ however far-fetchedly misogynistic ­ of the victim having "asked for it".

Who is Lucretia? For the first quarter of the opera we do not even see her, though we learn of her legendary fidelity from the brawling male protagonists. "Women are by nature whores," sings Junius (Leigh Melrose), himself a cuckold. "Not Lucretia," replies Tarquinius (Christopher Maltman), his lust as hot as blood. In an occupied city where the military wives' morals are on the slide, Lucretia (Sarah Connolly) is tantalisingly faithful to her husband Collatinus (Clive Bayley), granting him the respect and envy of his peers and superiors. Lucretia is the model of ideal womanhood; a "home-maker" who sublimates her sexual frustration through the sensual domestic pleasures of fresh linen and cut flowers. Lucretia is an object to be prized or destroyed, and her rape is a pure, predestined tragedy.

David McVicar's exquisitely serious ENO/Aldeburgh co-production of The Rape of Lucretia makes no attempt to pad out or modernise this blunt story with extrinsic devices. Instead he offers an intense concentrate of each character, propelling the drama to its miserable conclusion and underlining the inevitability of the tragedy. It is not Tarquinius who is on trial ­ he is simply acting in accordance with his nature ­ it is the audience. Though lighting designer Paul Constable dips shadows smooth and slow over Yannis Thavoris's beautiful, linear set ­ a resinous scoop of copper and purple flowing from a looming brutalist structure of oxidised black ­ as Lucretia retires to her bed, it is only the audience that sees seduction in the darkness. The moral ambiguity is ours, forcing us into uncomfortable complicity with Tarquinius.

It's sadly easy to be seduced by Maltman's compelling Tarquinius; he flexes with anger and envy, his movements virile to the point of violence even as he jests with his generals. But he also conveys a bruised vulnerability. Connolly, on the other hand, conveys immense strength. Her understanding of Lucretia's rapt devotion to Collatinus is so clear and complete that it seems to radiate through her skin. She shivers and bends with longing as she sings of her husband, with a vocal colour that blushes expectantly. When she emerges stricken after Tarquinius's violation all colour has gone. She is blank. She is already dead. "There is no sea deep enough to drown my shame," she sings. And you believe her.

Set against the muscular pull of venality are the conscientious voices of our co-witnesses and narrators; the Male and Female Chorus (played by John Mark Ainsley and Orla Boylan), whom McVicar involves in the drama to an unprecedented and highly effective extent. Two distinct characters emerge; Ainsley constantly and tetchily searching for a moral or an explanation, some kind of karmic justification for the outrage; Boylan saddened but accepting, less interested in structure and meaning than in emotion. The Female Chorus alone understands why Collatinus's "forgiveness" of Lucretia is the fatal blow.

The singing as a whole is exemplary in this production; Boylan, Ainsley, Maltman and Connolly display breathtaking conviction in their vocal characterisations and are well supported by Clive Bayley, Leigh Melrose as Junius, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Bianca, and Mary Nelson as Lucia. This is luxury casting, a best-of-British (and Irish) production that will surprise those accustomed to ENO's recent uneven standards. And with singers like these, the breadth of Paul Daniel's musical direction is properly revealed. Daniel's pacing is superb; this opera has never sounded so dark, intelligent and cohesive. Like McVicar, Daniel brings out a synaesthetic concentrate of the opera's colours. The percussive military figures are vivid and blunt, the softness of the love expressed for Collatinus as light as air, and the playing rich and subtle even in the rape scene. Even the tiresome sub-Purcellian floridity of the post-rape flower scene is given a precise and brittle character to counterpoint the shadowed sensuality of the night and the blank desolation of Lucretia. This is a triumph for McVicar, the performers, Aldeburgh and ENO. Transferring to the bombazine whoompf of the Coliseum this week after the brightly bouncy acoustic of Snape Maltings may present a few problems with tempi and dynamics but this is a must-see nonetheless. Don't miss it.

The Rape of Lucretia, Coliseum WC2 (020 7632 8300) from Thursday to 7 July