The Rape of Lucretia/CBSO, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape

A tragedy with a very human face
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The Independent Culture

In the 55 years since Benjamin Britten wrote The Rape of Lucretia, attitudes have changed. We now take Lucretia's vaunted chastity less seriously, and her rape more seriously while being less inclined to swallow the Christian piety peddled by the archly aphoristic Male and Female Chorus.

If that makes the opera problematic, David McVicar's new production, a collaboration between Aldeburgh and English National Opera, locates its human heart, which is no mean achievement. Yannis Thavoris's simple set creates a back wall that at one moment opens to suggest long vistas, and at the next closes in around the drama. In the rape scene, the wall becomes a mirror, doubling Lucretia's agony while reiterating the audience's voyeurism.

Throughout the opera, the Male Chorus (John Mark Ainsley) and Female Chorus (Orla Boylan) roam the stage, discoursing abstractly yet reluctantly finding themselves engulfed by the action. After the rape, she can't bear to be touched by him: rather than being merely commentators, they have a real if obscure relationship with each other, and with the audience.

Christopher Maltman's Tarquinius is a well-bred bit of rough trade, his vocal finesse matched by a physical swagger: that makes his progress from genuine desire to vengeful violence dangerously believable. If the rape transforms Lucretia (Sarah Connolly) into a rather conventional operatic madwoman, that is no doubt inherent in the piece.

Under Paul Daniel, the 12-strong orchestra plays with ideal transparency, but at Snape Maltings the singers, while sounding beautiful, often failed to make the text count. Perhaps that will change when the production travels to the London Coliseum. It will be fascinating to see whether the electrifying intimacy felt at the Snape performance survives in the larger space.

On Saturday, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo gave the premiere of No. 30 (NONcerto for orchestra, cello and high soprano) by Richard Ayres. Although the composer took a bow, I'm not convinced that he actually exists. Everything about the piece, from the programme notes and biography to the work's title and even the music itself, suggests that he belongs in some Dictionary of Imaginary Composers.

No. 30 begins with the solo cellist (Anton Lukoszevieze) grunting animalistically while his bow ploughs across some raucous wrong notes. When the soprano (Anu Komsi) joins the fray, she delivers wordless vocalise, sometimes through a loudhailer. Meanwhile the orchestra rustles, scrapes, bubbles and squeaks through an anthology of quasi-modernist devices. Towards the end of the piece, flutes twitter while three percussionists wave leafy branches.

It was the kind of amusing but longwinded jape that a committee of young composers might think up to rag the establishment. Did they in the process also invent "the composer Richard Ayres"?

'The Rape of Lucretia', London Coliseum (020 7632 8300) from 21 June; it will be broadcast on BBC2 on 17 June at 10.20pm

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