The Rape of Lucretia at the Royal Opera House is almost a great success. Director Oliver Mears’ intense staging possesses moments of pure violence and raw emotion, impressively pulled off by a cast drawn exclusively from operatic young artist programmes.
However, it’s not quite a win for The Linbury Theatre, with the sexual politics of Britten’s opera feeling uncomfortably oppressive and Mears’ production never quite figuring out exactly what it’s trying to say.
Set just before the establishment of the Roman Republic, Tarquinius Superbus is Britten’s tyrannical villain. Having been cuckolded by his entire harem, he’s driven mad by his obsession with the noblewoman Lucretia, with her chastity and commitment to her husband Collatinus being the root of his fixation. Tarquinius vows to test her chastity himself, and rides to Rome.
The set is very far from ancient Rome, with much of the action taking place in a beige, nondescript living room. The Linbury’s tight space, combined with a twelve-piece orchestra, is a good fit for the production’s claustrophobic feel.
Mears’s production ties violent warfare and toxic masculinity to Lucretia’s rape and eventual suicide. Tarquinius, sung with brazen confidence by baritone Jolyon Loy, is clearly plagued with PTSD stemming from his violent past. Lucretia herself is sung by Anne Marie Stanley, a completely mesmerising performance. Using her mezzo low notes to hold Lucretia’s rage, she holds you there in her pain.
Collatinus is played somewhat sternly by Anthony Reed, but he balances the ferocity and tenderness of his bass to complement Lucretia’s haunting melody. Collatinus and Lucretia’s reunion in Act II is handled with the utmost care by Stanley and Reed, making the moment Collatinus hears of Tarquinius’s barbarity beyond heartbreaking.
The entire piece is held together beautifully by the Aurora orchestra in the hands of conductor Corinna Niemeyer.
However, even the tightest of musical turns can’t make up for a production that, at its core, can’t quite make sense of itself. Mears hasn’t managed to find a way to make Britten’s opera work alongside his own contemporary ideas. The omnipresent religious narrators stick out awkwardly in this almost psychothriller production, although they are both sung beautifully and tenderly performed by Sydney Baedke and Michael Gibson. Their closing narration, where they remind the audience that God promises redemption in heaven, strikes entirely the wrong note, feeling like a disservice to contemporary understandings of sexual violence.
There are moments of brilliance in this production, but once the dust settles it leaves you thinking about how far opera has yet to go.