At the heart of tragedyBenjamin Britten

Concerts 26.05.2021

The Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord returns to its audience with a new production of Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia directed by Jeanne Candel. The musicians of the Multilateral Ensemble and the Orchestre-Atelier Ostinato share the stage of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord with the singers, all young and in residence at the Académie de l'Opéra national de Paris. The evening's Master of Ceremonies, Léo Warynski, makes his Paris Opera debut.

Written in the aftermath of the war, only two years after his masterpiece Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia is Benjamin Britten 's first chamber opera, and it is worth noting the economy of the cast: only two voices for the mixed chorus and an instrumental ensemble (including a harp and piano) of thirteen musicians alongside eight singers. 

Ronald Duncan's libretto, based on the play by André Obey (himself inspired by Shakespeare), plunges us into that troubled period of Roman history (509 BC) during which the rape of Lucretia by Tarquinius, a rape that drives the victim to suicide, triggers the revolt of a people held under the yoke of the Etruscans. " The advent of the Roman Republic takes place over the body of a woman who preferred to die rather than bear the shame and opprobrium ", emphasises director Jeanne Candel

While the men are resting between battles, rumours of their wives' infidelity reach them. Except for Lucretia, Collatinus' wife who, like Penelope, waits for her husband's return by spinning wool with her followers. Challenged by Junius, Tarquinius, mad with jealousy and desire, forces open her door and rapes her...

An unbleached, hand-sewn tapestry - Lisa Navarro 's - is the main element of the set. It hangs, obscuring the orchestra during the first, mainly male, scene. Drawn by the women who bring it down, the tapestry then slides across the floor, this time marking the feminine territory refined by César Godefroy's lights and colourful shades. The set then reveals a sort of loom at the back of the stage, the women's occupation when their husbands are in combat. 

In the English tradition fully embodied by Britten and the attention paid to declamation, the chorus (only two voices, remember) is there to set out the facts, comment on what the characters are saying and ensure the transitions: a role assumed with great flexibility and vitality by the Swedish tenor Tobias Westman and the no less warm soprano Andrea Cueva Molnar. The dialogue between the three warriors is dominated by violence and harshness in the opening scene. The American Alexander York/Tarquinius is impressive with a well timed voice, sometimes a little thunderous. The Russian Alexander Ivanov is more moderate in his outbursts, without always controlling his high notes well. The American Aaron Pendleton/Collatinus is less at ease in the recitatives that Britten writes in alternation with more sung sequences, between the arioso and the aria. These moments close to the narrative call for the piano, placed in the court and taking over from the orchestra as the harpsichord did in eighteenth-century opera. 

The violence can also be heard in the orchestra, which Jeanne Candel wanted to be close to the singers, sometimes to the detriment of the balance of forces, which is not always ideal. With its rhythmic restarts, the importance given to the timbres (harp, bass clarinet, English horn...) and the active presence of the percussion, the orchestra is one of the main springs of the drama, enhanced by Léo Warynski's supple and precise conducting.

The female tableau completely changes the climate, with Britten favouring duets and trios of female voices in very beautiful solo and choral pages in which the harp takes part, a sonorous metaphor for the spinning wheel of the spinners. The mezzo Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur asserts the personality of a Lucretia with very expressive accents. The luminous voice of Kseniia Proshina/Lucia also dominates, with all her freshness and agility, endowed with a beautiful melodic part and often associated with the more incarnate mezzo of Cornelia Oncioiu/Bianca. The beautiful scene of the flowers, full of innocence and purity (they know nothing of the rape of the previous night), makes the arrival of the victim in the last scene all the more tragic. 

The rape scene, which has to be hidden, is more than suggested in Jeanne Candel's direction, who wants us to feel all the lines "like an earthquake", she says. The suicidal stabbing, also shown on stage, is no less violent in its double repercussions, both intimate and political.

Michèle Tosi

At the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, until 29 May

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