BRITTEN: The Rape of Lucretia / Jon Vickers, ten (Male Chorus); Lyn Vernon, sop (Female Chorus); Claude Corbeil, bass (Collatinus); Alexander Gray, bar (Junius); Allan Monk, bar (Tarquinius); Patricia Rideout, alto (Lucretia); Ruth Ann Archibald, mezzo (Bianca); Elizabeth Strauss, sop (Lucia); Guelph Festival Orchestra; Nicholas Goldschmidt, cond / Opera Depot OD10964-2, order here (live: Guelph, spring 1974)
Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, has always been a favorite of those who enjoy musical drama but not particularly of average opera-lovers. Indeed, conductor Reginald Goodall, who was so pleased to conduct Britten’s Peter Grimes that he jumped at the chance to follow it up by conducting this work, was disappointed by it and vowed to never conduct a Britten opera again.
For most collectors, the definitive recording is the one made by Britten himself with Janet Baker in the title role, Peter Pears as the Male Chorus, Heather Harper as the Female Chorus, John Shirley-Quirk as Collatinus and Benjamin Luxon as Tarquinius. I owned that recording for several years but eventually gave up on it. Pears and Luxon were clearly past their prime, despite the dramatic force of their singing, and the recording—for me, anyway—lacked the excitement of a live performance.
Here we have a live performance with an outstanding cast and, more importantly (in my view), a conductor who drives the music forward with even greater force than Britten. The stars of this show are obviously Jon Vickers as the Male Chorus (the only Britten role he ever sang other than Grimes), Patricia Rideout as Lucretia, and the great Allan Monk as Tarquinius. The drawback is that it is recorded from the audience, which recesses the voices somewhat even as it gives a natural “space” around the voices, and is in mono.
But what a great performance it is! Lively in every respect, sung and acted splendidly, and conducted with a tautness ever greater than Britten’s own version. And once you get used to the sound, it isn’t bad at all; in fact, if anything, the orchestra is recorded with an almost 3D effect, with both the upper-range instruments (strings and winds) and percussion practically leaping out of the speakers at you.
Although Vickers fans will surely be interested in it for his participation—possibly at the insistence of Rideout—it is the contralto whose performance is clearly the most stunning. Gifted with a rich contralto voice, which she always felt was “like Kathleen Ferrier’s” (Britten’s original Lucretia, who unfortunately only left us a defective-sounding live performance from 1946, conducted by the lackluster Hans Oppenheim), she received short shrift even at the Canadian Royal Opera, where she sang an endless succession of maids and servants until she finally impressed audiences with her Carmen. This was the first time, in fact, that she was given the lead role in this opera; previously, she had only sung Bianca, the nurse, in performance. And to a certain extent, it is she who is the centerpiece of this overall splendid performance. I never really thought that anyone besides Ferrier and Baker could invest the role with such drama and meaning, but this recording proves me wrong. If anything, she is better than Baker of sainted memory: the voice richer and deeper—she easily reaches the low end of her range that Baker could just “touch”—and her interpretation even more three-dimensional. It is a stunning achievement, and a fine memorial of a great and vastly-underrated singer. Thankfully, her voice has a less prominent vibrato than Ferrier’s, and she didn’t always sound is if her dog had died, one of Ferrier’s chief faults as an interpreter.
But if Rideout’s Lucretia is the crown jewel, the rest of the cast are diamonds in the tiara of this opera. Vickers’ voice is not merely firmer than Pears’, but his interpretation equally riveting, and even some of the singers little-known outside of Canada—Corbeil, Gray, and Lyn Vernon as the Female Chorus—are up to their tasks. As much as I adored Heather Harper’s voice (for me, she was THE lyric soprano assoluta of the 1960s and ‘70s, an artist who could sing the phone book and make it sound great), Vernon, though less naturally gifted with beauty of tone, is even more intense, much like Joan Cross in the original production, but with a finer voice.
As for Vickers, he is stupendous: fully into the role and its text, and despite the somewhat distant microphone placement, his softest singing is clearly audible. But again, I must return to Goldschmidt’s conducting as the glue that holds this performance together and drives it with dramatic force. A Moravian Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in 1937, at age 32, he moved to Canada in 1945 and became the first director of the Royal Conservatory Opera School from 1946 to 1957. He was co-founder of the Royal Conservatory Opera Company, later the Canadian Opera Company. From 1968 to 1975 he was Music Director at the University of Guelph, the period during which this splendid performance was given.
In some ways the audience-perspective sound works miraculously well, as the voices are “staged” at different distances from the listener, something that is extremely difficult to pull off in a recording studio, and this, too, adds to the performance’s effectiveness. There is but one dropout in sound, towards the end of the first track on CD 2. Well worth the modest cost, although of course no libretto is provided.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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