Benjamin Britten's second opera (or third if we include the operetta-like Paul Bunyan) has come home to Glyndebourne. In 1946 the composer's response to the stress and hullabaloo around Peter Grimes was to decamp to the Sussex Downs and tackle something as far removed from grand opera as could be. The Rape of Lucretia, scored for the modest forces of eight singers and 13 instrumentalists, did not go down particularly well with its first audiences, although that's probably not the main reason for its relative neglect ever since.
Ronald Duncan's libretto is the guilty party. Like Aschenbach's strawberries in Death in Venice it is musty and over-ripe. Writing for music is craft, not poetry: it should inspire the composer, not do his job for him – a point upon which Britten would later insist when collaborating on a trio of operas with Myfanwy Piper, a compliant grafter who worked to order.
Lucretia's rape is an oft-told tale; even Shakespeare had a go. The Etruscan prince Tarquinius is aroused by the wife of General Collatinus; he violates her; she kills herself. Fiona Shaw's inspiration is to hypothesise the psychology of Lucretia's shame and present her – more boldly than most male directors would dare to do – as a sensual but morally steadfast woman who is deceived into revealing too much of her inner self to a man who is not her husband.
Duncan's Christian accretions to this tale are platitudes that possess an illusion of depth because the musical setting is so moving. The Rape of Lucretia is one of Britten's most arresting scores – a tumble of gracious melodies cloaked in orchestrations of the utmost refinement. From the innocence of the women's linen-folding music to the mournful cor anglais solo as Collatinus approaches his unfortunate wife, Britten creates extraordinary colours that Nicholas Collon and the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra render with delicacy and compassion.
Fiona Shaw embraces the opera for what it is, shortcomings and all, and provides a theatrical framework that turns its weaknesses into strengths. Her Male and Female Choruses (Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine, both eloquent and engaged) are modern-day archaeologists who have unearthed the remains of a Roman house and who conjure up – in their own minds' eye and, thanks to Michael Levine's evocative designs, in ours too – an all-too-human story from centuries ago. At first they watch and react, then they interact with the characters whose tragedy is refracted through their own contemporary responses.
The singers are close to ideal, every one of them. There's no bargain-basement casting for this tour; it's an A-list ensemble of exceptional quality, and everyone's exemplary diction makes the surtitles quite unnecessary. Duncan Rock's military hunk of a Tarquinius looms dangerously over Claudia Huckle's vulnerable, shift-clad Lucretia; Oliver Dunn, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Ellie Laugharne are all strong in support. The director depicts Collatinus as an oblivious cuckold yet David Soar makes him three-dimensional and dignified.
This inspired new production will go a long way towards rehabilitating Britten's second-least-loved opera (after Owen Wingrave), and it cries out to be revived within the main summer festival at some future date. Yet it's hard to imagine either Britten or Shaw being better served than they are here.
As if to prove that major artistic events need not be confined to the big cities, after Glyndebourne The Rape of Lucretia will tour to five regional venues (details here) along with L'elisir d'amore and Hänsel und Gretel.