by Rachel Beaumont

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Musical integrity intact: The Rape of Lucretia at Grimeborn

The Rape of Lucretia
Arcola Theatre, Studio 1
Balcony H15, £15, upgraded to Stalls
30 July 2018
Arcola page

The shoehorning of #MeToo into the Arcola copy for The Rape of Lucretia made me hesitate about buying a ticket. This is such a difficult piece: could it support such a payload of additional conceptual baggage? But equally I could see why director Julia Burbach, assuming she approved the copy, might think it a necessity, for the same reasons. I adore this piece, but it can be a problem. In the end, Burbach didn’t manage to make the problems go away, but nor did she obscure what makes it so valuable.

This is due in large part to Grimeborn’s high musical standards. Everyone who’s been before presumably knows this already, but for me it was a delightful, if somewhat shameful, surprise. Peter Selwyn and the chamber band were almost uniformly excellent, their liberation from the pit shining a light on how ingeniously the opera is scored (although I might not have thought so if I’d stayed in the balcony; from what I’ve heard from others, the balance benefits from having singers in front of you and musicians above you).

The intimacy of the Arcola is a very sympathetic space for young singers. Benjamin Lewis as Tarquinius has a simply fantastic sound with a wonderful litheness and beauty that made up for the slight and perhaps inevitable awkwardness he seemed to feel onstage. Nick Prichard as the Male Chorus I already know to be impressive but he is here again, producing a gorgeous clarion Britten tenor that carries through to the spoken recit with perhaps the greatest continuity I’ve ever heard; I’m eager to hear his Albert Herring, his Quint and perhaps his Grimes. James Corrigan as Junius also stands out.

The singing among the women is of a slightly lower level, arguably because they are more exposed and perhaps because the lower voice parts Britten requires are simply hard to come by. Bethan Langford is utterly committed as Lucretia and has impressive command over the part’s wide range; in fact the only reason I was slightly disappointed is probably because I ever yearn to see Christine Rice reprise the role, which is a most unfair comparison to make. Natasha Jouhl as the Female Chorus has some absolutely stonking top notes but disappears in the lower voice, the combination of both meaning her words are almost never audible.

Burbach mostly makes good use of the confined space. I think it’s a bit unfair to keep all the singers onstage for the entirety but perhaps that’s a Grimeborn thing. I think it’s a bit less sensible to keep the two Chorus parts on stage across the opera’s uncomfortable gender split, with one or the other left with nothing to do but gurn. The most difficult scene of the opera, the rape, I think is also mishandled: with Lucretia able to run around the bed in the way she does you wonder why she doesn’t try to break away sooner, giving a surely unintentional implication that she gives herself to Tarquinius. I know absolutely this was not what Burbach would have meant, and perhaps there was no alternative in the small space.

It is a mostly conventional staging and #MeToo only occurs in the finale, when the dead Lucretia rises from her corpse, tears off her absurd wig and gesticulates passionately but mysteriously throughout the final threnody. It was completely unclear to me what this could mean, beyond a desire to pull the rug from under the opera’s emotionalism and so neutralize whatever offence it might be deemed to impose. It is a tricky piece, and I’ve seen worse responses. In surer hands I know the opera can work better. But that its musical integrity remained more or less intact is a considerable triumph.

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