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5.0 out of 5 stars Intense, powerful account of a neglected Britten opera, 10 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Britten: The Rape Of Lucretia [Sarah Connolly, Christopher Maltman, Catherine Wyn-Rogers] [Opus Arte: OABD7135D] [Blu-ray] [2013] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
Though it's come late in the year of the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, has done much to consolidate and even raise his reputation as Britain's greatest composer and highlight some unjustly neglected works. It must be hoped that this belated release of David McVicar's 2001 production of the Rape of Lucretia for the English National Opera, recorded by the BBC at the Aldeburgh Festival, will bring this work - more deserving perhaps than Gloriana - to the attention of a wider audience.

Following Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia marks something of a rethinking of approach to opera that would have a significant impact on the style of much of the composer's later dramatic works. The subject of The Rape of Lucretia then is a sparse but powerful one which, when combined with Britten's musical scoring of it, is almost harrowing in its intensity. It's not difficult to see here themes that preoccupy Britten throughout his musical career and even in his personal life relating to the corruption of innocence. Lucretia, for Britten however is about much more than just the defilement of a woman's saintly virtue, but touches on the nature of society and the values that it assigns to men and women. In particular the work questions the nature of violence, in war and as a characteristic of men, and challenges whether pacifism isn't truer to the better nature of mankind.

It's Britten's musical arrangements however that are most innovative, distinctive, modern and relevant. The reduced orchestration highlights the expression of individual instruments and heightens the dramatic tone and tension of the subject. Rarely does the music rely on any conventional signposting that tells you how to react to the drama, but instead it fulfils the primary function of music in opera by exploring below the surface and revealing other depths. It's beautiful and haunting, underpinning the drama in Britten's own developing idiomatic language, but also his own personal convictions that were so out of place with the accepted conventions of prevailing social attitudes of the time. The use of male and female soloists as a 'chorus' is an important device that allows this wider perspective and provides a contemporary relevance, and not insignificantly, it's a device that is used in a very similar way more recently by Martin Crimp and George Benjamin in 'Written on Skin'.

If it's difficult to point to any specific directorial choice that evidently has an impact on the performance, what is clear nonetheless is that David McVicar gets the mood exactly right. His direction of the singers and the acting however is what ultimately makes this a truly great production, and the cast here is great. Sarah Connolly isn't yet in her prime here. She is still terrifically good, it's just that she's even better now. Christopher Maltman too has also matured into a better singer, but he has always been a good actor. If his performance here is just a little too creepy and disturbing, that isn't a bad thing with this work. John Mark Ainsley is at his best here as the Male Chorus and with Orla Boylan good as his counterpart, the Female Chorus. All the roles really are just terrific and the measure of the success of the production is that it's about as intense, well-sung, painfully well-acted performance of The Rape of Lucretia as you could wish for, a perfect match for Britten's remarkable score, which is revealed in all its brilliance here by Paul Daniels.
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