Britten, The Rape of Lucretia, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Jean Rigby, Richard Van Allan, English National Opera (released on May 31, 2005)
Not unlike Othello, the problem begins with an over-confident boast: Collatinus vaunts the virtue of his wife, Lucretia, when he is drinking with his friends. At this point in the early history of Rome, the city was still under the control of Etruscan overlords. Sextus Tarquinius, the Etruscan Prince of Rome, is overcome with lust when he hears the story of this perfect Roman wife. He gains entrance to her house, when Lucretia receives him honorably as a guest, and in the night rapes her. Lucretia calls upon her father and husband, reveals her shame, makes them swear to avenge her against her attacker, and then takes her own life with a dagger to spare her family the shame of her loss. Livy claims that Brutus stirred up hatred of the Etruscan rulers among the Romans by repeating Lucretia's story, helping to turn the tide of Roman hatred toward civil war. The legend of proud, independent Rome is born.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1666
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The singing is quite fine, especially on the female side, with a husky-voiced Jean Rigby as Lucretia, one of the great contralto roles: she has fine dramatic sense when portraying the character becoming mentally unhinged. She is well supported by the matronly nurse, Biancha (mezzo-soprano Anne-Marie Owens) and the girlish Lucia (soprano Cathryn Pope). The sound has limitations but is generally good, capturing the singing well although the instrumental parts are sometimes faint. In particular, Britten uses the harp to great effect in this score, when it plays a tense ostinato figure in the opening scene and again in the rape scene. The only reservation in my mind about this opera is the conclusion, in which Britten shortchanges the heroine, in favor of an ensemble reacting to her suicide. The Female Chorus then calls out to God, from a Christian perspective, to which the Male Chorus responds with a hopeful message. No, leave me instead with the horror of the suicide, as Handel does in his cantata, and as do painters who deal with the scene, like Rembrandt (twice), Dürer, Botticelli, and others.