At the end of Britten’s first chamber opera, the singers ask how it can be possible, given Lucretia’s purity, that she has to die. “Is all this suffering and pain in vain?” If part of opera’s function is to make us consider what it means to be human, rather than just to entertain, such questions are worth asking. What Fiona Shaw’s staging for the Glyndebourne tour tells us is that there are no easy answers, and sometimes no answer at all.
That’s a brave proposition in an art form that likes sending audiences home with the notion that everything will be right in the end. At the conclusion of this performance nothing seems “right”. Tarquinius is depicted as a brute who handles prostitutes, fellow soldiers and his cousin’s wife with equal violence. Lucretia is an angel who, far from subconsciously lusting after him, reacts with fear and horror, having woken from a dream in which she imagined his touch to be that of her husband. How could she be somehow complicit in her own violation? For Shaw there are no ambiguities.
Premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, The Rape of Lucretia has taken until now to return, and does so in a production that, by refusing to muddy the moral waters, makes more sense of this strange opera than any I have known. The austere platform-set (Michael Levine), evoking a Roman archaeological site, is imaginatively lit (Paul Anderson), and the modern-dress Male and Female Chorus make us participants in an ancient drama – though showing them in a sexual relationship seems wide of the mark.
What Claudia Huckle misses in voluptuousness, she makes up in saintly goodness, her velvety dark voice enfolding her lines in beauty. Musically and physically Duncan Rock’s Tarquinius has an imposing muscularity. Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine sing the chorus parts with uncommon sympathy, and the lack of sensuousness on stage is compensated for by a ravishing orchestral contribution under Nicholas Collon. The ultimate test of this performance is that, in the scene of Lucretia’s greatest pain, performers and audience are bonded in a palpable sense of anguish.