BRITTEN The Rape of Lucretia
This performance springs into life from the opening bars. Ian Bostridge is on top form as the Male Chorus, engagingly conversational and managing to invest Ronald Duncan’s contorted libretto with poetic feeling, even in a tongue-twister like ‘the prodigious liberality of self-coined obsequious flattery’. Susan Gritton’s Female Chorus is not quite as clear with her words; but, in the live ambience of a concert performance from the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, they set this Rape of Lucretia off to a fine start.
There are few recordings of Britten’s works that are as taut as the composer’s own but this is one of them, with Oliver Knussen nicking a minute or two off the duration of the Decca recording. Speed is not everything, of course, but Knussen’s keen sense of pacing tells in the grip of the drama. In the opening scene at the soldiers’ camp, the wind soloists of the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble reel in drunken revelry as Christopher Purves’s Collatinus and Benjamin Russell’s Junius, a strong duo, vie with the rather more dry-voiced Tarquinius of Peter Coleman-Wright. At Lucretia’s home, harp and pizzicato strings create a beautifully fragile atmosphere, Claire Booth’s Lucia floating the most delicate of high soprano lines over the Bianca of Hilary Summers as they fold the linen. Enter the highly charged Lucretia of Angelika Kirchschlager, who is the lightning rod for the electricity of the drama. Singing in perfectly detailed English, she creates a Lucretia entirely her own – not so much a formal classical Greek heroine, more a modern woman whose feelings are very close to the surface. In her opening scenes I miss the deep-seated devotion which is the bedrock of Lucretia’s character, so memorably portrayed by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker, but once the rape has taken place, Kirchschlager’s intensity is near to devastating. The only drawback is some vocal strain when she is giving her all.
The combination of Britten and Baker makes the composer’s own recording on Decca an essential purchase. Thanks to outstanding performances from Kirchschlager, Bostridge and Purves, allied to Knussen’s brilliant conducting, this new Virgin set ranks as one of the very best of the new generation of Britten opera recordings.