Opera Scotland

Rape of Lucretia

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Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Ronald Duncan

French play Le viol de Lucrèce (1931) by André Obey (1892-?).

First performance: Glyndebourne, 12 July 1946.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Royal Lyceum Theatre), 12 August 1946.
Scottish Opera premiere: Stirling (MacRobert Centre), 16 April 1976.

The Rape of Lucretia is the third of Britten’s operas, and followed on from the success of the large-scale Peter Grimes. It was a deliberate attempt to produce a piece which would be cheap to stage – no chorus and an orchestra of twelve instruments plus piano. This would allow it to be toured easily. It was the first of a number of pieces on a similar scale which Britten continued to produce throughout his career.

The subject of The Rape of Lucretia is a legend from the early days of the foundation of Rome, when it was a monarchy. The last of these kings was Tarquinius Superbus, regarded as a foreign tyrant, because he was Etruscan. This example of his son and heir's unacceptable behaviour is reputed to have resulted in the expulsion of the Roman monarchy and the establishment of a republic.

Male Chorus (tenor)
Female Chorus (soprano)
Collatinus, a Roman general (bass)
Junius, a Roman general (baritone)
Tarquinius, Prince of Rome (baritone)
Lucretia, wife of Collatinus (contralto)
Bianca, Lucretia’s nurse (contralto)
Lucia, Lucretia’s servant (soprano)

Plot Summary
The setting is in or near Rome around 500BC. The two chorus figures provide a continuous narrative and a framework for the four scenes of the action.

The first scene is a tent at a military camp outside Rome. Tarquinius, Collatinus and Junius discuss a bet the officers had the evening before about the conduct of their wives. All were away from home and enjoying themselves except for Collatinus’s wife, Lucretia. Tarquinius resolves to visit Lucretia at her home, and sets off on a frantic gallop to Rome. The second scene, at Collatinus’s house, shows Lucretia again spending a quiet evening with her two women, spinning yarn. Tarquinius arrives and is offered hospitality for the night.

The second act starts with Lucretia asleep in bed. Tarquinius enters and wakes her. The rape is depicted in an orchestral interlude. The fourth scene, like the second, is in the main room of the house. The servants are working. Tarquinius has gone in the middle of the night. Lucretia enters in a distracted mood. When Collatinus and Junius arrive she explains what has happened, and ignoring Collatinus’s attempt to forgive her, she stabs herself.


DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1970

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
English Chamber Orchestra
Janet Baker (Lucretia), Peter Pears (Male Chorus), Benjamin Luxon (Tarquinius).

Britten is almost unique in having left a near complete sequence of recordings of his operatic works, even when, as with Lucretia, he did not conduct the early performances. Since he was generally an excellent conductor this recording is self-recommending. Janet Baker’s Lucretia has a great sense of immediacy, presumably resulting from her performances with the English Opera Group. The cast also includes Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk.

CHANDOS (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1993

Conductor: Richard Hickox
City of London Sinfonia
Jean Rigby (Lucretia), Nigel Robson (Male Chorus), Donald Maxwell (Tarquinius).

Richard Hickox tackled this piece early in his series of recordings of the Britten operas, at a time when very few of the operas had alternatives to Britten’s own view. The results are consistently good with the performance centred on Jean Rigby’s experienced interpretation of the title role.

GALA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1946

Conductor: Reginald Goodall
English Opera Group Orchestra
Kathleen Ferrier (Lucretia), Peter Pears (Male Chorus), Otakar Kraus (Tarquinius).

There are historic recordings, and then there are recordings of genuine historic importance. This is one of the latter. During the months after the premiere the production toured extensively, most of the roles being double cast. When excerpts were recorded in 1947, Nancy Evans sang Lucretia. She is excellent, but it is special to have a complete version with Kathleen Ferrier, who created the part. The cast also includes Joan Cross and Owen Brannigan. The recording was made live at a performance in Amsterdam, presumably from radio sources, and sounds surprisingly good for its age.

ARTHAUS (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 1987

Conductor: Lionel Friend
Orchestra of English National Opera
Jean Rigby (Lucretia), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Male Chorus), Russell Smythe (Tarquinius).

ENO’s first staging of a Britten chamber opera was seen at the time as something of a risk in such a large space as the London Coliseum. Fears were unfounded, however, and Graham Vick’s straightforward production projects strongly.

The Cast

 Lucretia's nurse
 a Roman General
Female Chorus
 a Roman General
 Lucretia's maid
 wife of Collatinus
Male Chorus
 a Prince, son of King Tarquinius Superbus

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