Lucretia is probably the worst libretto Britten ever set. Its awkward combination of the classical with the Christian, the slips into dated vernacular or the high-flown and pretentiously poetic, all conspire to set it on a level with Tippett at his most embarrassing. Was the composer just not strong enough with his librettist, Ronald Duncan (several of whose plays he had written incidental music for)? He certainly got what he needed out of Eric Crozier, Myfanwy Piper, even E.M.Forster - often by bullying and insisting on his own way.
It's a shame for he wrote some of his loveliest and most beautiful music in this, the first of his chamber operas. He was already a master of his slimmed-down orchestra, something he had learnt from his time writing for Post Office documentaries and various left-wing plays. Just listen to the evocation of a sultry Latin night in the opening scene with its chirruping crickets and booming bullfrogs. Or the thrill of the wild Ride to Rome. And here (in `She sleeps as a rose upon the night') is the first of those magically dreamy nocturnes that recur in later operas like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw. The vocal lines are also memorable, tuneful and among the composer's best, whether the insistently obsessive motif on Lucretia's name, the hair-raising runs of the Ride to Rome (tailor-made for Pears' ability to ride straight through the passagio in the voice), the ravishing harmonies as the women fold linen or the heart-break of Lucretia's confession.
The performance on these discs, conducted by the composer, were linked to a touring English Opera Group production and so have a real feeling of the theatre about them. The singers show just how strong the `Aldeburgh Rep' was at that time. Janet Baker is unbeatable as the heroine - at least on a par with the role's creator, Kathleen Ferrier, and often better. Benjamin Luxon is all power and lust: Bryan Drake has just the right edge to his voice for the political mob-stirrer, Junius: John Shirley-Quirk saves Collatinus from being the rather pale goody-goody he can often seem by concentrating on the text as well as his customary beauty of tone. The two Greek-style Choruses have to handle some of the more awkward passages of the libretto. As I've said, the Male Chorus's part is actually designed for Pears' voice and he sings it with his familiar inimitable style, if without quite the freshness he brought to the various performances now available from the time of the opera's premiere. Heather Harper doesn't quite efface memories of Joan Cross, but she is as hauntingly beautiful as ever in Britten's music. And Britten as conductor is naturally and as always a supreme communicator of his own intentions. He elicits some wonderful playing from his small ECO group and paces the piece, dramatically as well as musically, just right.
This is as near a definitive performance of the work as you'll find. Some of the earlier recordings, as I've said, are worth exploring, but are much more dated in sound terms. Hickox's later CDs have a fine Lucretia in Jean Rigby and an interesting alternative to Pears in Nigel Robson's Chorus, but don't quite hit the spot as this performance does. And on these discs you also get Janet Baker's riveting performance of Phaedra, a cantata from late in the composer's career when he was already seriously ill and which is effectively a distilled and concentrated opera in its own right.
on 29 October 2014
This recording of The Rape of Lucretia was not made until 1970, nearly 25 years after the first performances at Glyndebourne, so that apart from Pears as the Male Chorus none of the original cast sings in it. But archival recordings do exist in which the first Lucretias, Kathleen Ferrier and Nancy Evans, may be heard. This was Britten's first chamber opera, and it is his orchestral scoring, particularly the use of harp and low woodwind, that is its principal virtue. Listening to a recording, without the visual element, tends to expose the self-consciously 'poetic' parts of Ronald Duncan's libretto and the fact that Lucretia herself never really stirs our emotions, not even in so sympathetic a performance as Dame Janet Baker's. The male singers— Shirley-Quirk, Luxon, Bryan Drake and, of course, Pears—are all trusted Brittenites. As a fill-up, the cantata Britten wrote for Dame Janet in 1975, the unlovable Phaedra, is an intelligent choice.