SJCMS in rehearsals for 'The Rape of Lucretia.'Oliver Kealey

Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia received its premiere by the St John’s College Music Society (SJCMS) on Thursday night at the Palmerston Room, St John’s.

Though Britten tried hard to blend in with high society throughout his life, he was a provincial Suffolk man born and bred. This, along with his pacifist tendencies and vilification as a homosexual artist, led him to write scathing operatic allegories. The Rape of Lucretia is one of Britten’s finest examples of societal critique, telling the story of Tarquinius Sextus, the Etruscan Prince and new leader of Rome, who rapes the chaste virgin Lucretia, causing both her suicide and the fall of the Roman monarchy. A sordid tale of ancient patriarchies and the all-too-current demonisation of women and their sexual rights,  it is a moving choice for an early Lent term opera.

“The opera ends with a tutti existential question: ‘Is this it all?’”

Consisting exclusively of either professional lay-clerks or student members of Cambridge’s top collegiate choirs, the cast of just eight singers weaved enchanting vocal fabric before our eyes from spools of Britten’s most delightful writing.

Karolina Csathy as Bianca.Oliver Kealey

The versatility of these voices must be commended: the to-die-for sweetness of Lucia and Bianca’s duets to the harshness of the more declamatory passages (the opera ends with a tutti existential question: ‘Is this it all?’) was wonderful. Special mention must go to the male and female choruses, who, in addition to their weighty roles as atemporal narrators and moralising influences, sung large and taxing parts with flair. The three soldiers formed a nice sub-ensemble, and having clearly gelled with each other in rehearsal, executed their often intricately intertwined parts well. Finally, the rape scene itself was as tastefully done as one imagines it could be by Peter Lidbetter as Tarquinius and Chloe Allison as Lucretia.

The direction was cool and understated, but the effects it produced were all more striking for it. Nicole Lau’s directorial fingerprints notably included the post-rape ensemble number with Lucia, Bianca, Junius and Collatinus, who Lau had form and reform one line, front of stage, as they lamented the tragedy of Lucretia’s rape with dynamic gestures, and the opening scene in which the drunkard revelling soldiers freeze into tableaux while the male chorus seems to plant the seed for the violation to come. There was a particularly memorable moment during one such freeze-frame in which Junius (Saran Suebsantiwongse) stared out into the audience with defiant intensity, drawing the whole room in – and especially me, at whom he decided to smoulder.

“Britten’s opera about a virgin woman’s rape by a serial philanderer and hated plutocrat has never seemed more relevant.”

The bespoke chamber orchestra – a regular feature of Britten’s operatic output – was in fine form. Whether they were giving a lilting, pastoral accompaniment to the female characters’ lullaby to their mistress, Lucretia, or unleashing tumults of violent sound as Tarquinius raped her, the players never failed to create the deeply evocative, enchanting sound worlds for which Britten’s orchestration is so well-loved. Things to look out for in the orchestra include the beautiful and always idiomatic harp writing throughout (Britten wrote a suite for the instrument), and versatile use of piano sonorities (Britten himself was a peerless pianist), played, of course, by conductor and musical director Stephanie Childress.

With the ink hardly dry on an executive order sending women’s reproductive rights back to before the sexual revolution – this from the leader of the free world, no less – Britten’s opera about a virgin woman’s rape by a serial philanderer and hated plutocrat has never seemed more relevant. And when such a relevant opera is pulled off with such intoxicating singing, staging and directorship – and all yours for a fiver! There is simply no excuse not to turn up and marvel.

Tickets are still available for the final performance tonight, 8pm, the Palmerston Room, St John’s College