The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Fiona Shaw’s new production of Britten’s problematic second
opera, The Rape of Lucretia, doesn’t quite succeed in answering St
Augustine’s question, but it does powerfully communicate the work’s
troubling dramatic power and relevance.

This Britten centenary year has brought forth a chest of treasures, familiar
and rare. Amid the countless offerings, at home and abroad, of the operatic
favourites – from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice – we
have enjoyed several renditions of the Canticles and Church Parables,
performances of Paul Bunyan and Owen Wingrave, and
innumerable masterpieces of the chamber repertoire: ranging from the
abstractions of Our Hunting Fathers to balletic presentations of
Phaedra, with scarcely a song or chamber work neglected, including
Britten’s juvenilia.


But, Lucretia is a tricky one. Even the television opera, Owen
– which can sit uncomfortably in a theatrical context and
presents characters with whom it is hard to empathise – communicates its
‘meaning’ more directly: whether we consider it a ghost story, anti-war
manifesto or psycho-sexual drama, Wingrave is obviously ‘about’
something. But, Lucretia’s ‘message’ is equivocal and elusive;
and, this is not wholly the fault of Ronald Duncan’s dreadfully verbose
libretto – how, for example, is a composer supposed to respond to lines such
as ‘and always he’d pay his way/ With the prodigious liberality/ Of
self-coined obsequious flattery’?

Part of the problem lies in the tale itself. In the Roman account, there are
no ambiguities: Lucretia kills herself for socio-political reasons – her
husband’s power, social status and honour depend upon her virtue. In
Shakespeare’s poetic narrative, Lucrece exhibits a guilt which is laden with
Christian misogyny: she is beautiful, and her loveliness and purity has
provoked Tarquin’s natural, masculine sexuality – so it’s her fault, like
Eve, and the least she can do for the sake of everyone else is finish things
off quickly.

Britten’s opera shifts between the two positions. We begin in a Roman
military camp beside the Tiber, the formal device of the Male and Female chorus
distancing us from the action in the manner of Greek tragedy. Indulging in
crude banter, the boisterous soldiers praise Lucretia’s steadfastness and
goodness, and the Male Chorus acknowledges, ‘Collatinus is politically astute
to choose a virtuous wife./ Collatinus shines bright from Lucretia’s fame’.

However, contradicting this ‘historical’ focus, in their first lines the
Choruses announce, ‘We’ll view these human passions and these years/
Through eyes which once have wept with Christ’s own tears’, establishing a
specifically Christian perspective, one confirmed in Lucretia’s dying words,
‘See, how my wanton blood/ Washes my shame away!’ And, then there is the
Christian epilogue which offers salvation to the participants’ despairing
cry, ‘Is this all?’: ‘Jesus Christ. He is all! He is all!’ It’s all
rather confusing.

Fiona Shaw and her design team (sets Michael Levine, lighting Paul Anderson,
costume Nicky Gillibrand) opt for desolation with scarce hint of salvation. A
bleak, raked stage, covered with earth overlain with a grubby black cloth, is
dimly lit. Throughout the opera, the characters struggle to climb this incline,
a physical manifestation of their worldly troubles and inner torments, and turn
from us to peer into the delicate blue light which glows from afar – an
elusive emblem of hope perhaps, but ever unattainable.

The cloth is raised with a single, central pole to form a dingy encampment.
Drunken soldiers squat in the dark corners of the crowded tent, their fatigues
reminding us that war, with its suffering and atrocities, is not merely an
historical phenomenon. The Male and Female Choruses, dressed in dull 1940s
clothing, are our conduit, via WWII, to this former era. In the libretto, the
house curtain rises to show the Chorus ‘reading from books’; but Shaw
literally digs her way back into antiquity, the Male Chorus scrabbling in a
muddy pit from which Lucretia is later unearthed. Similarly, Collatinus’s
house is an archaeological site, its perimeter marked by excavators’ tape,
only a few foundation stones and rubble indicating its inner dimensions.

The gloom is ubiquitous, a cross-shaped standard lap providing weak
illumination. Only at the start of Act 2, when Lucretia lies asleep, dreaming
‘the sunken treasures of heavy sleep’, does Anderson shine a gleaming white
spotlight on her resting form, the sudden contrast powerfully evoking the
purity of one who is ‘as light as a lily that floats upon a lake’. However,
the glistening transparency proves poignantly fragile and defenceless against
Tarquinius’ lust – ‘Loveliness like this is never chaste; If not enjoyed,
it is just waste!’ Shaw shows us, explicitly and indisputably, how Tarquinius
is driven to destroy the very beauty that he desires, Lucretia’s defilement
taking place amid the earth and gravel of a dark, Hadean pit. At the end, it is
from this pit that severed limbs and a head are unearthed; the Choruses’
closing religious consolations are bitterly unconvincing.


On 15th November, the young cast were on fine form. Andrew
Dickinson and Kate Valentine were outstanding as the Male and Female Chorus
respectively, engaging our interest and our feelings as they related and
participated in the unfolding tragedy. Dickinson articulated Duncan’s
literary turgidities with clarity and fluency, his delivery natural and
unmannered but the sentiments heartfelt. Valentine sang with generous tone and
warmth, always relaxed, blending beautifully with Dickinson in the duet refrain
which punctuates the opera. The lullaby which the Female Chorus sings over
Lucretia’s sleeping form was elegant and touching, enhanced by some exquisite
playing by alto flute, bass clarinet and horn.

Britten and Duncan originally conceived the Choruses as commentators,
relating a tale from the annals of Roman history (as the curtain falls on Act
1, they ‘pick up their books and continue reading’). At times, Shaw’s
Choruses adopted a similarly distanced viewpoint but elsewhere they travelled
back through time, and engaged and interacted with the past. So, as Dickinson
related the account of Tarquinius’s nocturnal journey to Rome, his
precipitous flight was mimed in the background while the Female Chorus tried to
intercept and deter the dissolute Roman ruler as he recklessly lamed his horse
and plunged into the Tiber, propelled by jealousy and lust. Such interaction
added immediacy and deepened our empathy. The occurrences of the distant past
have been undergone by many since: during WWII and in the present day. Shaw
shows us that the story the Choruses tell, is their tale too; but, it does seem
a step too far to suggest an intimate sexual attraction between the two
Choruses …

The role of Lucretia was originally written for Kathleen Ferrier; Claudia
Huckle may not possess a voice of such ample fullness, but after a slightly
hesitant start she produced an intense and affecting performance. She acted
with intelligence and commitment. A voice that initially embodied lightness and
composure, transmuted after her violation to darker tones conveying
vulnerability and self-castigation. Her confession was rich, mobile and
expressive, her exposure unveiling a troubling guilt as Tarquinius’s desire
became her crime. Huckle’s Lucretia is no artificial idol; rather she is a
real, flesh-and-blood woman, shocked and destroyed by her own unbidden

Duncan’s libretto depicts the rigid divisions in Roman society between
male and female groups. Here, the Etruscan soldiers were crude, misogynistic
competitors, convincingly brazen and coarse. In contrast, Ellie Laugharne’s
lively, bright Lucia and Catherine Wyn-Rogers pure-toned Bianca suggested
honest, uncomplicated friendship and love within the female domain.

Oliver Dunn revealed an appealing baritone and sure dramatic instincts as
Junius. David Soar presented a well-rounded Collatinus, his strident Act 1
soliloquy on ‘love’ giving way to tender and profound sincerity following
Lucretia’s confession, supported by rising woodwind and harp accompaniment
gently intimating hope; ironically his forgiveness merely exacerbated
Lucretia’s remorse.

As Tarquinius, Duncan Rock was fittingly assertive and muscular, although
his aggression and brashness was modulated by moments of lyricism. Enraged by
taunts and boasts, stirred by Lucretia’s beauty and virtue, his passionate
outburst before his assault was poetic and ecstatic.

After the rape, Rock sadly conveyed a sense of his own loss – ‘Though I
have won/ I’m lost./ Give me my soul/ Again/ In your veins sleep/ My
rest.’; his Tarquinius was to be both censured and pitied.


Britten’s score is sparse, fitting for the post-war cultural climate when
the work was composed, and ideal for our own ‘age of austerity’. In
contrast to the drab bleakness on stage, the twelve instrumentalists conducted
by Jack Ridley responded wonderfully to the transparent lucidities of
Britten’s scoring. As Tarquinius crept through Lucretia’s house, the
percussion’s nervous motifs skilfully depicted the explosive tension within
the assailant. There was some enchantingly sensitive playing from harpist Sue
Blair, and Alan Darbyshire’s silky cor anglais melody, above unsettling
off-beat bass quavers, deepened the poignancy of Lucretia’s entrance
preceding her confession.

In an article, ‘The Problems of a Librettist: Is Opera Emotionally
Immature?’, Duncan suggested that the opera continued the dramatization of
the conflict between the individual and society begun in Peter Grimes:
‘the individual is personified by Lucretia whose virtuous personality is
persecuted, raped, by Tarquinius, who symbolises Society’. A more abstract
reading might propose that the opera explores relationships between desire and
violence, love and sin: after Lucretia’s death, the whole cast cry: ‘How is
it possible that she/ Being so pure should die!’

But, for all the digging and delving, Fiona Shaw doesn’t find historical
or philosophical ‘truth’: Lucretia’s suicide is presented more as a
personal purgation than a social sacrifice, but the intimations of her guilt
are neither confirmed nor eradicated. The Christian epilogue does not provide a
redemptive framework: we do not equate Lucretia’s suffering with Christ’s
crucifixion. But, this doesn’t matter. Shaw offers an intensely moving
spectacle. As Lucretia herself says: ‘What I have spoken never can be

Claire Seymour

Glyndebourne Touring Opera will perform in Milton Keynes 19-23 November,
Plymouth 24-30 November and Stoke-on-Trent 11/14 December.

Listen to the Rape of Lucretia podcast

Cast and production information:

Male Chorus, Andrew Dickinson; Female Chorus, Kate Valentine;
Collatinus, David Soar; Junius, Oliver Dunn; Tarquinius, Duncan Rock; Lucretia,
Claudia Huckle; Bianca, Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Lucia Ellie Laugharne; Director,
Fiona Shaw; Conductor, Jack Ridley; Set Designer, Michael Levine; Lighting
Designer, Paul Anderson; Costume Designer, Nicky Gillibrand; The Glyndebourne
Tour Orchestra. Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury,
Friday 15th November, 2013.

image_description =Scene from The Rape of Lucretia [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of Glyndebourne Touring Opera]
product_title=The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Scene from The Rape of Lucretia

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of Glyndebourne Touring Opera