Amid an already rich opening weekend of the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, which has included such highlights as Simon Rattle and the CBSO's stunning Messiaen and Spira Mirabilis's wonderful Beethoven, it almost seems greedy to expect yet another highlight of the same order. Yet this is what the festival served up in their concert performance of Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia. It hasn't always worked on the stage, yet in this setting it is fearsomely dramatic, such as when Tarquinius makes his horse ride to Rome, or the vividness of his passage down the corridor to Lucretia's room to commit the titular act. Indeed, in much the same way as a passion, one could see it working much better this way than in an actual staging. It is the case that at a few moments, such as when Tarquinius sings that he is taking Lucretia's hand, it might have been nice to semi-stage and actually do this, not least as they were standing right next to each other at the time.
It isn't a work I'm hugely familiar with, yet hearing it showcased like this gives me cause to wonder why. The light, single part, scoring is full of beautiful and glittering music, and it provided a wonderful opportunity for the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble to shine. The scratch group of top notch players had been specially assembled by Oliver Knussen for the purpose and they were never less than a treat to listen to. Knussen himself was masterful, both in his control of his forces, but also in his unassuming nature, never getting in the way of the music or drama, but rather always its servant.
So, to the singers, and here too we were spoilt. The piece has a distinctly Greek feel to it, featuring as it does male and female chorus who comment on the action throughout. These parts went to Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton respectively. I am not always convinced by Bostridge and can find his performances overdone sometimes, however on Monday night I could find no fault, indeed, he was wonderful, commanding, his voice beautiful and clear. Opposite him, Gritton was very nearly as fine, certainly in terms of tone and colour, the only reservation would concern the audibility of the words, which, as with several of the women, was slightly less good. However, this is a minor caveat, as in all cases enough of the words were audible to follow the plot clearly; and, given this, I was glad that they did not opt for surtitling, as some critics have suggested they should have, since this draws attention away from the drama.
In the title role, Angelika Kirchschlager was another highlight, both vocally and dramatically. And, fast running out of superlatives, much the same can be said both of Christopher Purves' Collatinus and Peter Coleman-Wright's Tarquinius. Indeed, whether it was Bianca the nurse (Hilary Summers), Lucia the maid (Claire Booth) or Junius (Benjamin Russell), there really was not a weak link among the cast. The acerbic way in which Summers bade Tarquinius goodnight at the end of act one was magnificent. As an ensemble, they blended beautifully too, that goodnight scene being a prime example.
The beauty I've mentioned perhaps seems at odds with such a harrowing subject, but the full horror is vividly realised in the music of the second act; and, indeed, that early beauty arguably makes what follows more powerful. Britten's use of orchestration is superbly judged, such as key sections towards the end accompanied only by piano, or his use of the harp.
In the end, it is a piece that is at times incredibly beautiful, at others immensely troubling, but nonetheless a treat to witness. All the more so, as it followed a disappointing afternoon recital of songs by Britten and Purcell from James Gilchrist, whose excess of vibrato, uniformity of colour and inability to moderate his volume to the acoustic of Orford Church, were not endearing.
The Monday night performance I attended was broadcast live by Radio 3 and will be on iPlayer until 27th June. It is well worth a listen.