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 Recording of the Week  Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and Donizetti's Poliuto from Glyndebourne

Not having made it to the Sussex Downs for the past two years, I’ve been getting my Glyndebourne fix from home this summer thanks to Opus Arte, who’ve released four productions from 2015 on DVD and blu-ray. The two which have been occupying my attention this week – the UK professional premiere of Donizetti’s Poliuto and Fiona Shaw’s shattering Rape of Lucretia, unusually imported to the Festival from the UK tour rather than the other way round – both transfer compellingly to the screen, thanks in no small part to riveting performances from two superb young tenors whose acting chops have nothing to fear from the close scrutiny of the camera: Michael Fabiano, febrile and fanatical as the eponymous Christian martyr in the Donizetti, and Allan Clayton, disturbingly involved and involving as the Male Chorus in the Britten.

Duncan Rock as Tarquinius
Duncan Rock as Tarquinius

If it sounds perverse (of myself and of Shaw) to focus on this usually impassive role in Britten’s drama of violated purity, bear with it: I have to admit that when I heard glowing reviews of Shaw’s production from friends last summer I wasn’t sold on the central idea of framing the drama as a post-War excavation of Roman ruins, with the Choruses as archaeologists from the 1940s. On paper it sounds contrived; on stage and screen it works beautifully, as Clayton and his female counterpart Kate Royal become ever more caught up in the unfolding tragedy even as they’re powerless to intervene. During Tarquinius’s fateful ride to Rome – one of the most gripping passages in Britten’s score for me, and realised with taut, diabolical energy here by Leo Hussain and the 13 players drawn from the London Philharmonic Orchestra – the Male Chorus and Tarquinius ride on one another’s backs as the identification between them grows ever more intense, and the central confrontation in Lucretia’s bedroom spurs the Male and Female Chorus into frenzied coupling. All of this could become ludicrous or tasteless in the hands of a less astute director, but Shaw’s production resolutely avoids anything approaching sensationalism or prurience: even the notorious purple prose of Ronald Duncan’s libretto (sample phrase: ‘panther agile, panther virile’) sounds less risible than usual here.

Though the focus is thrown onto the two narrators, the Roman characters all come vividly to life: Duncan Rock’s hyper-muscular Prince of Rome is as imposing vocally as he is physically, particularly impressive in the upper reaches of the role, whilst Christine Rice’s warmly sung Lucretia is all vitality and tenderness (she’s explicitly depicted as a mother here, which gives additional depth to the domestic scenes) rather than a staid Classical matron. Special praise, too, for Matthew Rose’s world-weary but unfailingly generous Collatinus, a role that can so easily become a cipher.

Michael Fabiano and Ana María Martínez
Michael Fabiano and Ana María Martínez

Rose is engrossing, too, in Poliuto, as the sinister Priest of Jupiter Callistene, implacable in his quest to stamp out religious dissent in a volatile post-war community: Mariame Clėment’s loosely twentieth-century setting has overtones of Mussolini’s Italy and 1990s Sarajevo (so don’t expect any lions when the Christian martyrs go to their death), and whilst it came in for some critical stick at the time for not entering into more specific engagement with contemporary concerns about religious martyrdom and the co-existence of different faiths in the aftermath of conflict I found its starkness most effective on screen, at least. And the singing from Fabiano, the Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez (taking on Maria Callas’s mantle with aplomb here) and the Bolshoi baritone Igor Golovatenko as the Roman general Severo, is uniformly excellent.

It’s wonderful to have so much of such a thrilling season at Glyndebourne captured for posterity (Barrie Kosky’s staging of Handel’s Saul, which I discussed with its star Christopher Purves a few weeks ago, was another gem), and here’s hoping the tradition continues!

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia (DVD)

Christine Rice (Lucretia), Allan Clayton (Male Chorus), Kate Royal (Female Chorus), Duncan Rock (Tarquinius), Matthew Rose (Collatinus), Michael Sumuel (Junius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Bianca) & Louise Alder (Lucia), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leo Hussain (conductor) & Fiona Shaw (stage director)

Available Format: DVD Video

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia (Blu-ray)

Christine Rice (Lucretia), Allan Clayton (Male Chorus), Kate Royal (Female Chorus), Duncan Rock (Tarquinius), Matthew Rose (Collatinus), Michael Sumuel (Junius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Bianca) & Louise Alder (Lucia), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leo Hussain (conductor) & Fiona Shaw (stage director)

Available Format: Blu-ray

Donizetti: Poliuto (DVD)

Michael Fabiano (Poliuto), Ana Maria Martinez (Paolina), Igor Golovatenko (Severo), Matthew Rose (Callistene), Timothy Robinson (Felice) & Emanuele D’Aguanno (Nearco), Glyndebourne Chorus & London Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Mazzola (conductor) & Mariame Clément (stage director)

Available Format: DVD Video

Donizetti: Poliuto (Blu-ray)

Michael Fabiano (Poliuto), Ana Maria Martinez (Paolina), Igor Golovatenko (Severo), Matthew Rose (Callistene), Timothy Robinson (Felice) & Emanuele D’Aguanno (Nearco), Glyndebourne Chorus & London Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Mazzola (conductor) & Mariame Clément (stage director)

Available Format: Blu-ray