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Britten Operas on DVD, Part 2

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Britten, The Rape of Lucretia, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Jean Rigby, Richard Van Allan, English National Opera (released on May 31, 2005)
Eric Crozier, a friend and librettist of Benjamin Britten, suggested the story of Lucretia to the composer for his first chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. Britten approached Ronald Duncan about the libretto, and Duncan agreed to use as his main source a modern French play, André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrèce (adapted separately in English by Thornton Wilder). Obey certainly knew the Shakespeare poem on the story, The Rape of Lucrece, and the ultimate source, the first book of Livy's Ab urbe condita. It is an inherently operatic story, set by Handel in an extraordinary cantata, La Lucrezia, recorded superlatively by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

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
Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1666
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Britten made a fine opera, a tautly dramatic and beautifully scored two-act piece of theater for eight singers and a dozen instruments. (It was mounted convincingly by Portland Opera's Young Artists Program last season.) This is the only version presently available on DVD (unfortunately lacking a subtitle option -- yes, even though the opera is in English), Graham Vick's Spartan staging for English National Opera, filmed in 1987 by Michael Simpson for British television. The two narrators -- a device borrowed from Obey's play -- a mezzo-soprano Female Chorus (Kathryn Harries, in a trench coat-like dress) and a tenor Male Chorus (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, in a business suit), sing from a sort of walkway, their hands often gripping the railing. The sets designed by Russell Craig seem to place the story not in ancient Rome but in modern-day Japan, with bare floors, low tables, characters sitting on the floor, and sliding screens often lit with silhouettes.

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.

Kultur D2929

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