The coarseness of true love

Benjamin Britten’s corrupted innocents

Benjamin Britten

Snape Maltings and other venues

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 1 July

“Boys”, reads the inscription, centre stage. This is clearly an opera by Benjamin Britten: boys, as exemplars both of beauty and of innocence and ripe for betrayal by circumstance or ill will, are a central feature of Britten’s dramatic landscape. One is not surprised by the inscription – except that the stage is set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a comedy in which real mishap is conspicuous by its absence. The unavoidable implication is that the production is more about Britten’s private dreams than Shakespeare’s public play.

One of the peculiarities of the operatic stage, which relates to the limited size of the repertoire and the need constantly to represent familiar material, is that directors are often concerned to tell stories that are strikingly at odds with the one told by the libretto. Usually, the contrast is slight, with alterations to the place and period of the original often succeeding in enhancing the audience’s emotional relation to a work’s dramatic content. On other occasions, however, it is quite clear that a director is less interested in rejuvenating a work, or in shining light on neglected features of its composition, than in doing palpable violence to it.

Christopher Alden’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at English National Opera, is an odd example of this. Only in a parallel universe, and one at some remove from our own, could Shakespeare and Britten’s opera be understood to tell a story about cyclical child abuse in a mid-century grammar school. And yet that is the story Alden has told. While Britten’s Theseus enters only toward the end (the part is much reduced from the original play), Alden’s Theseus is the first character on the stage, remaining there to the end. Played by a gaunt, ashenfaced Paul Whelan, he is apparently drawn back to school against his will to witness the grooming of a new victim by Oberon, evidently because the latter has grown bored of his postpubescent former favourite, Puck. Theseus shadows Puck on stage, only occasionally becoming entangled in the action. The implication is that it makes no difference whether we take the character to be dreaming the action or watching it: what is happening to Puck and the boy also happened to Theseus, just as it will happen to others entrusted to the care of Oberon and Titania, master and mistress of the unhappy establishment.

Oberon’s power seems to come from distributing cigarettes of uncertain composition but devastating narcotic effect – the actors are directed to smoke them as if taking a heroin hit. Through their addictive power he controls the other characters, including, courtesy of Puck’s misadventure, the Athenian lovers, here cast as gawky sixth-formers. Why Oberon wishes the foursome well remains one of the production’s several unsolved mysteries, but perhaps it has something to do with repairing the patina of social normality among the school’s leavers, a protective layer with which to conceal and protect the nightmare at the institution’s – and by extension, society’s – heart.

The oddest feature of this morally and artistically troubling adventure is that it actually works. I was reminded of the comment – reportedly made by the wife of the Venetian ambassador at the Viennese premiere of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice – that the great tragic aria “Che faro senza Euridice” could equally well have expressed joy and contentment had only the words been substituted for something different. Here, Britten’s superbly coloured and fleet-footed score seemed all of a sudden to be crawling with sinister intentions, worming their way through a palpably uneasy audience. The hazily contrapuntal string motif, for example, which punctuates the drama with periodic reminders of its strangeness, has rarely sounded quite so effective – or affective – in its new, malevolent clothing. Throughout, Leo Hussein’s admirable conducting led to a performance of the score which was among the most beautiful and compelling I have heard.

On stage, Alden’s concept also made surprisingly clear sense, despite the frequent clashes with the libretto at a literal level. In particular, Shakespeare’s hierarchical organization of the characters found an apt analogue in the structured society of the school, while the Athenians’ expressions of infatuation seemed to fall quite naturally from the lips of Alden’s adolescents. Both acting and singing were also excellent throughout, if not uniformly so. Willard White’s Bottom stood out as the only character capable of eliciting any warmth of feeling, as opposed to the various shades of pity (Puck, played by Jamie Manton), horror (Anna Christy’s Titania) and disgust (Graeme Danby’s games-master Snout) evoked by all the others. As Oberon, Iestyn Davies’s subtle counter-tenor was eerily seductive – one of the best I have heard, in fact, and the perfect aural counterpart to those intriguing cigarettes.

What Britten would have made of all this is another question entirely. What emerges now as a thoughtful, if rather forced, attempt to align Britten’s Dream with other more nightmarish elements central to the composer’s stage work, would understandably have been taken by the composer as a libellous assault on his character and reputation. He would also, without doubt, have been more than hurt by the thought that gossip about his putative paedophilia had developed over the past few decades to the extent that its present hold over the public imagination should be sufficient to corrupt, or expose as rotten, the only one of his operas which unambiguously celebrates innocence.

It was interesting to read, in this connection, that Colin Matthews once put it to Britten that his operas were unified by the theme of the corruption of innocence. “Utter rubbish” was the response, uttered in such a way as to discourage pursuit of the subject. But the thesis is more than tenable, even to the extent – as Alden’s Dream shows – of comprehending ostensible exceptions to the rule. The context of Matthews’s reminiscence was his thoughtful programme note to Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, a star-studded concert performance of which was the highlight of the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival’s opening weekend.

The event also marked a somewhat prodigal return to the festival programme for its founder. Since Pierre-Laurent Aimard took over the artistic direction of the festival in 2009, Britten’s music has rather taken second place to that of Boulez and his colleagues: this year, György Ligeti received the closest focus, with a fascinating day exploring his music and its connections with György Kurtág, Conlon Nancarrow and Steve Reich, among others. And as the Ligeti performances amply demonstrated, the festival’s increasingly international reach has been to its benefit. But with Britten’s centenary fast approaching (in 2013), and given that the composer’s active and profitable estate is one of the chief sources of funding for the festival and its umbrella organization, Aldeburgh Music, it seems prudent as well as proper to welcome him back to the fold; that much of his music in any case fares well by comparison when heard alongside that of his postwar contemporaries is one of the further benefits of mixed programming of the kind that Aldeburgh does so well.

The Rape of Lucretia is unusal among Britten’s operas. This is not because it is supposed to be funny, although there are some Wildean moments in Ronald Duncan’s unrelentingly highfalutin libretto (“virtue in women”, quips Junius to Tarquin at one point, “is a lack of opportunity”). Rather, it is because the dramatic structure is contrived. There are two narrators, one of each gender, who not only set each scene but thereafter are to be heard interjecting with somewhat laboured history lessons, anti-Etruscan propaganda, and psychological commentaries which go some way beyond what the legal establishment refers to as guiding the witness – the male narrator would today probably be found guilty of incitement to the rape. When the roles are taken by Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton, of course, one doesn’t complain about the narrators’ musical overexposure, but the device does cause one to look around for an explanation.

One of the places one looks for some kind of narrative authority, inevitably, is the music, which is some of Britten’s finest. Composed for chamber orchestra (with one player per part), with a piano for some of the drier recitative sections, it is a supremely responsive score, driving and colouring the action with a freedom and felicity that Mozart might even have envied. During the one section in which the narrators leave the characters to their own devices – the second scene of Act Two, in which Lucia’s maid and nurse arrange flowers for their mistress, unaware of what befell her during the night – the atmosphere of careless joy is so finely wrought through the intertwining of female voices with the higher woodwind and harp that one almost forgets the ironic context. Britten and Duncan’s opera is challenging to stage, particularly when one considers the heartfelt but nonetheless bizarre postlude in which Lucretia’s tragedy is turned into a Christian parable, a religious conversion which ignores the fact that the legend of Tarquinius Superbus enjoyed a much more fruitful moral life in the Roman Republic than it did in Christian tradition (Dante, Cranach, Giordano).

Aldeburgh’s concert performance sidestepped most of the dramatic problems simply by presenting the work as a kind of oratorio, as it were a narrative form richly illustrated with extended examples or reported action. The “direct” action was further demoted by placing the soloists – excepting the two narrators, who stood either side of the conductor – on a raised platform behind the orchestra. One effect of this was, in an odd way, to personalize the work as a sincere statement of Britten’s attitude to true love, and of the fear encircling it where, as in the composer’s case, it dared not speak its name. As Lucretia puts it, “To love was to live on the edge of tragedy”. The performance also highlighted the quality of orchestral writing, as well as the economical, razorsharp direction of Oliver Knussen. Aside from the narrators, who were both wonderful, among the soloists Claire Booth (Lucia), Hilary Summers (Bianca) and Christopher Purves (Collatinus) were superb; Angelika Kirschlager, as Lucretia, was revelatory.

Hearing Hilary Summers’s powerful, open-throated sound served as a good reminder of how rarely one hears proper contraltos nowadays, as did the previous evening’s performance of Mahler’s great final symphonic paean to sensuality, Das Lied von der Erde. Composed for orchestra and solo tenor and either contralto or baritone, the work is far more often performed by a mezzo-soprano. Simon Rattle – who returned to Aldeburgh to open the festival with the orchestra that made him famous (and vice versa), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – usually prefers to perform the work with a baritone, but on this occasion he chose to bring his wife, mezzo soprano Magdalena Kŏzená.

Kŏzená was suffering from a bad cold, but her performance was powerful for a singer with, effectively, a small voice for the part, and compelling in the final song, breaking slightly at Mahler and Mong-Kao-Jen’s evocation of lost happiness and birds huddled silently, before shifting to the lower registers of the final section. Her vocal partner, the tenor Michael Schade, had an easier time riding Mahler’s rich orchestral textures – a problem exacerbated in the reverberative acoustic of the Snape Maltings – but his strangely smug gestures and rasping timbre only deepened one’s sympathies for Kŏzená. Rattle and his enormous orchestra huddled around her. They gave a raw and vivid account of the score, joyfully rambunctious at times, at others so remarkably balanced one was barely aware of their presence. The work ends with the slipping of the poet’s faltering breath into the vast cycles of nature, but the orchestra saw to it that the embers of human intelligence glowed proudly to the end.

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