The fuss that greeted the Royal Opera House’s current production of William Tell has proved something without the slightest frisson of doubt; rape, and its presentation in operatic form, is still something that shocks people if there is the slightest belief that there is a gratuitous aspect to its appearance. Therefore, the revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s chamber opera, first seen in this staging in 2013, has to tread a very fine line indeed. Make it too coy and run the risk of being accused of soft-pedalling something that, in this particular case, is the whole raison d’etre of the staging, but make it too graphic, and be accused of crass exploitation. It is to Shaw’s credit that the central scene is thus presented with tact and discretion but a clear sense of what is going on; it would be dramatically incoherent without it.
By now, most people will know whether they are fans of Britten, still one of opera’s most polarising composers. Aficionados rave about his carefully considered atonal scores, where every single note and phrase has great significance, and where the abiding feeling is of great intelligence. The unconverted mutter quietly about the absence of tunefulness, and certainly The Rape Of Lucretia is one of Britten’s most uncompromising scores in this regard; not for nothing did the man next to me audibly mutter ‘Oh bloody hell’ halfway through the second act after a particularly trying series of exchanges.
Nonetheless, for admirers, there is a great deal to enjoy in Shaw’s typically thoughtful and nuanced production. It is slightly odd that it is being produced this year rather than the more obvious choice of 2016, as the opera first appeared at Glyndebourne in 1946, but there is everything that aficionados would expect from a typically upmarket staging. The plot is, necessarily, somewhat thin, revolving around how the Roman prince Tarquinius, in an attempt to prove that all women are false, rapes the virtuous Lucretia, who, in an agony of indecision about her implied consent, commits suicide. Yet there are provocative and hugely timely undercurrents throughout. When rape is so often used as a weapon of war, its presentation here is a chillingly contemporary message.
Although Michael Levine’s design, which resembles an archaeological dig site, verges on the obscure, there’s no doubt that, as ever with Glyndebourne, this is a high-class evening. Christine Rice sings powerfully as Lucretia, as does Duncan Rock as the villainous Tarquinius (he gets a round of boos as well as applause at his curtain call), and Pieter Schoeman’s conducting of the 13-piece version of the London Philharmonic who play Britten’s difficult, thought-provoking score is exemplary. A top-notch evening then, but far from an easy one.