Thursday, 25 February 2016

Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Guildhall School

Christopher Cull, Miljan Siljanov, Daniel Shelvey, Thomas Atkins - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Christopher Cull, Miljan Siljanov, Daniel Shelvey, Thomas Atkins
Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Britten The Rape of Lucretia; Katarzyna Baljeko, Thomas Atkins, Elizabeth Karani, Christopher Cull, dir: Martin Lloyd Evans, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Intense and strong account of Britten's disturbing chamber opera

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama's operatic offering this term was Benjamin Britten's small scale but intensely challenging The Rape of Lucretia. We caught the second performance on Wednesday 24 February 2016, with the alternative cast. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by Jamie Vartan with lighting by Mark Jonathan and video by Dan Shorten. Katarzyna Balejko was Lucretia, with Milan Siljanov as Collatinus and Christopher Cull as Tarquinius, Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani as the Male and Female chorus, plus Daniel Shelvey, Jennifer Witton and Elizabeth Lynch. The 13 piece instrumental ensemble was led by Amarins Wierdsma with Matteo Oberto on piano.

Elizabeth Karani, Karzyna Baljeko, Thomas Atkins - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Elizabeth Karani, Katarzyna Balejko, Thomas Atkins - photo Clive Barda
Britten's opera is a short, concentrated work written for a small group of performers. Martin Lloyd-Evans and Jamie Vartan chose to heighten the works immediacy by reconfiguring the Guildhall School's Silk Street Theatre so that the audience was on three sides of a thrust stage playing area, with the main stage to the rear used sparingly. The orchestra was not in a pit but to one side of the playing area.

This provided a number of challenges for the singers, not only being so close to the audience but never being able to face all at the same time. And when standing to the rear of the thrust stage, performers were quite a distance from some of the audience members. Add to this the notoriously wordy opening of Britten's opera (with its libretto by playwright Ronald Duncan) and you have some real challenges.

The Male and Female chorus, Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani (in formally dressed in modern business suits) coped admirably and really took ownership of the music and the text. Inevitably there were moments when textual clarity was compromised because of the staging, and it did not help that the band was not in a pit and so balance could be tricky. And it is a testament to both Atkins and Karani that the first act receive such an involving exposition.

Miljan Siljanov, Karzyna Baljeko - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Milan Siljanov, Katarzyna Balejko - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda

The main playing area consisted of a bare rectangle with just a table and chairs, and a set of steps descending into the ground (the main access). Style was very unspecific, and the Romans were all dressed in 19th/early 20th century period costumes (long skirts for the women, military dress for the men, 1930's style Grecian gowns for Lucretia). The rear full stage was only used for special effects, with a black scrim being raised to reveal, in Act 1, the three women spinning, and in Act 2, the garden full of flowers.

Karzyna Baljeko, Christopher Cull - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Katarzyna Balejko, Christopher Cull - photo Clive Barda
Overall the first act as creditable and involving without any great sense of revelation. Milan Siljanov (Collatinus), Daniel Shelvey (Junius) and Christopher Cull (Tarquinius) brought off their scene with a fine combination of youthful hi-jinks and the sense of something more sinister. Cull's Tarquinius has a sense of niceness about him, and the act did not have the sense of foreboding that some performances do. The three women, Jennifer Witton (Lucia), Elizabeth Lynch (Bianca) and Katarzyna Balejko (Lucretia) brought a lovely sense of the calm before the storm to their scene. And the lovely Goodnight ensemble which closed the act

Both Male and Female chorus had shown a tendency to get involved in the action during Act One, being more than observers and there were moments when it was difficult to tell of Thomas Atkins' Male Chorus was reporting on Tarquinius (Christopher Cull) or encouraging him.

This sense increased in Act Two and the whole cast really ratcheted the drama up more than a notch or two. The whole of this act was a wonderfully sustained and really visceral event. With the performers often so close, there were moments that were truly disturbing. At the centre of this was Katarzyna Balejko's Lucretia and we sensed her performance grow and develop, through the tense rape scene till the shocking moment when Lucretia appeared next morning with her hair shorn. Balejko's performance was powerful, controlled and remarkably mature one. All the more telling because English is not her native language.

Elizabeth Karani, Karzyna Baljeko, Christopher Cull, Thomas Atkins - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Elizabeth Karani, Karzyna Baljeko, Christopher Cull, Thomas Atkins
Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Milan Siljanov's rock-like Collatinus provided a wonderful foil for Balejko, and Siljanov's 'never more shall we to be apart' was heartbreaking. Christopher Cull is a vivid performer and his Tarquinius was beautifully sung, though perhaps did not quite have the sense of danger that I wanted. But perhaps were were intended to be lulled into that false sense of security, making his attack on Lucretia all the more shocking.

Jennifer Witton made a delightful Lucia, at once dazzled by Tarquinius and disturbed by others reactions. Elizabeth Lynch was a strong Bianca, making far more of the character than I have seen before, without ever pulling focus. Daniel Shelvey was a deceptively attractive Junius, profoundly disturbed by the result of his previous encouragement of Tarquinius' obsession with the chaste Lucretia.

Both Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani contributed to the intensity and power of this act, and their solo moment at the end where Atkins' Male chorus invokes Christ after the repeated refrain of 'is this all?' was a fitting climax.

At this point director and designer made what seems to be something of a misjudgement.  The Christian element is very present in the opera, but Martin Lloyd Evans chose to really emphasise this. Thomas Atkins brought on a cross which he placed by the prone body of Lucretia like a head-stone and then as the music closed the very rear scrim raised to reveal a huge landscape of crosses which evoked for me the image of the First World War cemeteries in Flanders. A strange image with which to conclude the opera.

Despite my strictures about balance, the instrumental ensemble under Dominic Wheeler provided superb support. Britten's writing for the individual instruments is soloistic in style and the instrumental forces make a real contribution to the drama.

That this performance built into something really powerful is a testament to Martin Lloyd Evans, Dominic Wheeler and their young cast. By the end of the opera this had ceased to be simply a promising student performance and taken on a life of its own as something profoundly disturbing.

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