Opera in two acts (duration 1 hour 50 minutes)

Libretto by Ronald Duncan, after the play by André Obey

A quick introduction

When was it written?

23 January – 3 May 1946 (revised spring 1947). The first performance was on 12 July 1946 at Glyndebourne Opera House.

What’s it about?

The story is set in Rome in 500BC. Lucretia, the wife of the Roman general Collatinus, is assaulted at home by the prince Tarquinius while her husband is away. The following day, Lucretia – traumatised and destroyed by what has happened to her – commits suicide. The action is framed by two choruses, who are looking back from a later era.

What does it sound like?

Despite its violent subject-matter the music is often beautifully lyrical, particularly the passages composed for female voices. Britten also conjures up a sinister, unsettling feel in the opening scene with a combination of percussion, strings, and high harp. Lucretia’s final aria is one of the most passionate Britten ever composed.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. The role of Lucretia was written especially for the contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

2. It was a ‘chamber opera’, that is, composed for very small forces rather than a ‘grand opera’ such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. The Rape of Lucretia requires only 8 singers and 13 instrumentalists.

3. At the time, all operas needed to be passed for public performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The Office commented that one particular phrase (referring to Tarquinius’s ‘unsheathed sword’) be removed as it was ‘little better than the obscenities in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

4. It was premiered at Glyndebourne in July 1946 and was the only opera to be programmed that year. As a result, there were two casts, who alternated in order to save voices.

5. As many products in the UK were still rationed in 1946, the costumes were paid for with hundreds of clothing coupons.

The plot

Time and Place: In or near Rome, 500 BC

Act 1. The Male and Female Chorus describe the historical background to the story, and reveal their view of events to be that of a later, Christian era. The action is set in and around Rome immediately before the end of the reign of the Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus in 510 BC. At a military camp outside the city his son, the prince Tarquinius Sextus, is drinking with two generals, Collatinus and Junius. They discuss an earlier, unfortunate bet, in which the constancy of various Roman wives was tried and found wanting. Of the married men (Tarquinius goes to brothels) only Collatinus can boast a faithful wife, Lucretia, who was discovered sleeping alone in her husband’s absence. Urged on by the malicious Junius, Tarquinius decides to prove Lucretia chaste by attempting her virtue himself, and rides off to Rome. His arrival at her house produces consternation, but hospitality forces Lucretia to offer him a room for the night, despite her misgivings and those of her servants.

Act 2. Tarquinius’s purpose, however, is made clear when he wakes her and rapes her before leaving the house. The following morning her late appearance in a distressed, broken state, is only slowly understood by her nurse Bianca and made Lucia, and her husband is sent for. Collatinus arrives with Junius to hear the new, and despite his at least partial understanding of Lucretia’s ‘shame’ it is too painful for her to bear, and she stabs herself. Her death provides the impetus for the Romans to throw out the Tarquins. The Male and Female Chorus attempt to come to terms with these events in a Christian context.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.