The Rape of Lucretia
Youth and beauty provoke extreme forms of desire and lust for destruction.
Through them even the most virtuous woman suddenly and inadvertently
becomes a temptress. That is what happened to the beautiful
Lucretia. Since ancient times she who preferred to die rather than live
in shame has personified conjugal fidelity and virtue, and despite this
depictions of her always carry an element of sexual temptation. Benjamin
Britten gives this ambivalent allegory of virtue a transparent, clear musical
form modelled on Henry Purcell’s operas. He consciously transferred
the conditions that prevailed in the 18th century into his own time and
created an allegorical opera in the spirit of the 20th century that belongs
to a specifically English musical tradition.
The Roman generals Tarquinius, Junius and Collatinus had put their wives’
fidelity to the test by unexpectedly riding back home from their camp one
night. With the exception of Lucretia, Collatinus’s wife, they found all their
wives in the arms of other men. Tarquinius’s passion is aroused by Lucretia’s
virtue. He secretly rides alone to Rome and exploits his position as a prince
of Rome to gain admission to her house at night. Once everyone is asleep
he enters Lucretia’s room, planning to seduce her. She tries to resist him, but
he rapes her. Next morning Lucretia tells her husband what has happened.
Collatinus places no blame on her because she was violated, but she is unable
to live with this shadow hanging over her love of Collatinus and her
shame at what has happened and kills herself. The people of Rome rise up in
anger at the prince’s behaviour and revolution is imminent.
The story is set in a narrative framework: two singers, the Male Chorus
and the Female Chorus, tell the story and comment on it like the chorus
in dramas of antiquity, like allegorical accompanying figures in baroque
opera. The difference is that these figures become emotionally involved
and argue from a Christian perspective, so instead of receiving summarised
interpretations that distance them from the action the audience
is confronted with the disturbing events in a way that only serves to
heighten their emotions. With his chamber orchestra Britten creates an
eloquently atmospheric, engrossing and full sound that elevates the apparently
small-scale work to the status of a full-blown opera.