Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

Théâtre de l'Athénée, Paris, Tuesday June 26 2007

Conductor: Neil Beardmore. Production: Stephen Taylor. Soloists of the Atelier Lyrique de l'Opéra national de Paris, as follows. Lucretia: Anna Wall. Collatinus: Ugo Rabec. Junius: Wiard Witholt. Tarquinius: Igor Gnidii. Bianca: Cornelia Oncioiu. Lucia: Elisa Cenni. Female Chorus: Marie-Adeline Henry. Male chorus: Vincent Delhoume. Ensemble de Basse-Normandie.

An unexpected invitation brought me to the elaborately Belle-Epoque bonbonnière of the Théâtre de l'Athénéé for this production (brought in from Strasbourg) of Britten's Rape, featuring young singers involved in the Paris Opera's Atelier Lyrique ("opera workshop") programme.

It's hard to write up a show of this sort. We're told you have to be cruel to be kind, but I suspect that's just an excuse for plain cruelty; more convincing kindness would be simply to say "bravo" to everyone ("E for earnest endeavour," a conductor I played under used to say) for their efforts and wish them all well in their future careers. Also, I found myself right on the front row of this 570-seat bijou with my nose in the pit. So on the one hand, nothing was blurred or helped along by blending into a whole: every instrumental, vocal and acting flaw was plain to hear or see; and on the other, there were the many distractions of pit life: clearly, the bassoonist had a keen sense of humour, and the lady flautist was simply wicked: the eyes had it. The other problem being that it was hard to judge which voices were really projecting into the house and which remained confined to the first few rows.

We're also told that many are called but few are chosen (my cliché book, you'll note, is well-thumbed). That's a saying that an evening like this illustrates well. It reminds us that a career in opera is not an easy choice, and that for every singing star there are dozens (or hundreds) of lesser singers whose career, despite all the hard work and stage fright, will be restricted to a lifetime of villagers, young soldiers and second maidens.

The singer likeliest to go far is probably the one who's already come furthest: Moldavian baritone Igor Gnidii has already sung Ashton, Germont, Schaunard and Eugen Onegin as a member of the Odessa Opera and is scheduled to appear as Il Marchese d'Obigny at the Paris Opera later this year. His was one of the few voices under total control throughout the range, well-phrased, powerful, capable of opening up from piano to an ear-ringing fortissimo... and he was the most convincing, assured actor of the evening.

Anne Wall's voice was also under control, and she was good at wounded dignity and threw herself into the drama when it finally emerged (see below); but she was a puzzling choice for a role created by Ferrier, not sounding much like a mezzo at all.

The rest of the cast showed their youth in various ways. The most striking problem of the evening was the awkward English pronunciation: I found myself constantly consulting the French supertitles for help. Admittedly, the text is more literary than operatic*. The other was the zombie-like acting - a lot of standing around, arms dangling. But this may have been due to the production itself, as at times standing still with backs to the audience was required by the director.

The staging was simple: a two-sided space rotating for scene changes, red-ochre walls, a few pieces of neo-classical furniture and WWII costumes, with grubby desert uniforms for the men and a woman officer's one for Lucretia - which of course she changed for a white nightdress - and finally a violet velvet dress for her suicide. The male and female chorus were in strict, war office suits and had a 40s desk, filing cabinets and a lamp to the left of the stage. The acting, as I've implied, was mostly wooden, possibly under the director's influence, but passion did eventually break out for Lucretia's final scene and her husband (who was somewhat reminiscent of the young De Gaulle, though fortunately a good deal better-looking) acted his grief rather better than he sang it.

It was nice to be practically in the thick (hardly the right word, of course) of Britten's marvellous chamber scoring, and I expected such a small ensemble to be pretty good, the French being generally better-behaved as soloists than as orchestral players. As it turned out, this was classic French playing, with very decent winds and very quaint strings. The harpist's problem's with Britten's demanding writing were of great entertainment to the bassoonist, whose big, round eyes rolled expressively, and that wicked lady flautist evidently enjoyed some of the surprising sounds emerging from the double bass.

The theatre was audibly packed with friends and family from the UK, France and Italy, cheering loudly at the end. Moldavia and Odessa are further away, so Gnidii didn't get the outburst he deserved. But he needn't worry: he's the one to look out for in future.

*And the religious claptrap bolted incongruously on to the plot is simply weird.

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