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The Rape of Lucretia

Opera in two acts. Op. 37 (1946)

Scene from 2009 Royal Danish Opera production. Photographer: Miklos Szabo.

Libretto by Ronald Duncan after the play by André Obey

First performance

12 July 1946 Glyndebourne Festival Opera

A combination of post-war economic realities and aesthetic preferences encouraged Britten to develop the concept of chamber opera, employing a small cast without chorus and an orchestra of just thirteen players. His first work in the new medium was The Rape of Lucretia, first performed just over a year after Peter Grimes, in 1946. There is, however, no loss of colour and atmosphere – indeed the pared-down textures produced an intensification of Britten’s operatic vision which was to serve him further in Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw. With the roles of the Male and Female Chorus, who comment on the action ‘out of time’ (as in Greek tragedy) and the use of solo piano accompaniment to accompany recitative passages, Lucretia achieves a certain ‘classical’ poise and detachment. However, Lucretia and Tarquinius are flesh-and-blood characters driven by real human emotions and desires (Lucretia’s music is surely some of Britten’s most sheerly beautiful) and the result is an opera of great power and expressive richness.