Tradition holds that the Rape of Lucretia is the event separating the kings of Rome from the later Roman Republic. Lucretia was the wife of Collatinus, an important local governor, and their marriage was depicted as the ideal Roman union, husband and wife being faithfully devoted to one another. According to Livy, Lucretia personified “beauty and purity”, and exemplified the highest Roman standards. While her husband was away at battle, she would stay home and pray for his safe return.
In the meantime the last king of Rome sends his son Tarquinius on a military errand to the region where Lucretia lives. He is warmly received in the home of Collatinus, as befits a figure of his rank. Yet in an appalling breach of hospitality, Tarquinius enters Lucretia’s bedroom and forces himself on her.
The story formed the basis of Britten’s first “chamber opera”, featuring 8 singers and 12 players, written for the newly formed English Opera Group and first shown at Glyndebourne in summer 1946. This was just a year after the premiere of Peter Grimes, a huge success that made the composer’s reputation. The large chorus of Grimes is replaced in Lucretia by just two people: a soprano (Sydney Baedke) and a tenor (Michael Gibson), who play the role of a Greek chorus. They explain the situation in Rome, sunk into depravity under the rule of its Etruscan king, and illuminate the feelings of the main characters, while representing Christian interpreters of a pagan story.
Unlike Grimes this smaller scale opera does not quite engage the audience in Lucretia’s tragedy. It is musically subtle yet lacks visceral intensity, which explains its relative rarity among productions of Britten’s works.
The forceful Tarquinius (Jolyon Loy) both repels and attracts Lucretia, and in failing to prevent the rape she feels she has betrayed herself. Suicide is her only way out, despite her husband’s forgiveness.
With Anne Marie Stanley as a gentle home-loving Lucretia, Oliver Mears (the Royal Opera House’s head of opera) has created a production in the Linbury Studio that serves the opera well in a modern setting designed by Annemarie Woods. When Tarquinius and his fellow soldiers enter Lucretia’s home they are dark figures carrying rifles, entirely believable in the present day, especially with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in mind, where such things are still happening. It is, however, a tasteful production, with the rape itself committed off-stage.
The young singers — and they were all young artists at the start of their careers, along with the small orchestra under the baton of Corinna Niemeyer — gave a well judged performance. It brought out the intriguing musicality of a work that shows the composer pulling away from his previous large scale drama, though the music unsurprisingly recalls that of Peter Grimes at various points.
Theatrically this was a success, and Mears has given the young singers something to engage seriously with, but one can see why it has never caught on as a popular part of Britten’s oeuvre.
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