The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

4

The Rape of Lucretia

If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?

St Augustine 1

The myth of The Rape of Lucretia tells of the rape of the beautiful, chaste Lucretia by Tarquinius, the son of the Etruscan King who rules over the Romans. At a soldiers' camp outside Rome Lucretia's husband, Collatinus, extols the virtue and purity of his wife. Tarquinius, incensed and incited by this boasting, rides that night to Collatinus's house and attacks Lucretia. Stricken with shame she sends a messenger to her husband. On his arrival she publicly exposes Tarquinius's crime after which, fearing that she has brought dishonour upon Collatinus's good name, she commits suicide. In some versions of the story, which has been retold by diverse writers including St Augustine, Ovid, Livy, Shakespeare, Sidney, Lee, Heywood and Ponsard, Lucretia's death acts as a catalyst for a Roman rebellion against the Etruscan oppressors.

The subject was brought to Britten's notice by Eric Crozier, who had attended a production of Le Viol de Lucrèce by the French dramatist, André Obey, during the 1930s. He presented a copy of this text to Britten in 1944. The Rape of Lucretia (1946), composed for eight singers and twelve instrumentalists, was Britten's first 'chamber opera' and marked a radical stylistic shift from the rich orchestral palette and melodic romanticism of Peter Grimes. However, a degree of continuity was assured by the involvement of many of those who had worked with Britten on Grimes; Crozier was again the producer, and the cast included four singers from the original Grimes production — Peter Pears, Joan Cross, Owen Brannigan and Edmund Donlevy. Crozier has suggested 2 that the intimate nature of the subject required an intensification and clarity which could only be achieved in a small-scale format, but more practical issues may also have influenced Britten's decision to abandon 'grand opera' for 'chamber opera'. Reducing the scale of the production vastly lessened the financial liability of the project, which was initially funded by John and Audrey Christie at Glyndebourne, and made a subsequent tour of the provinces more feasible (although the poor reception of Lucretia later led Christie to withdraw his support). The first signs are evident that Britten was

____________________
1
St Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. H. Bettenson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 30.
2
Eric Crozier (ed.), The Rape of Lucretia (London: Bodley Head, 1948), pp. 55—60.

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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