Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia is, as the title implies, not an easy opera subject-wise. It is based on André Obey’s play Le viol de Lucrèce, which in turn is partially based on Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece. This was Britten’s third opera, and the first of his so-called chamber operas, operas with small orchestras and small casts.

Norwegian National Opera, The Rape of Lucretia © Erik Berg
Norwegian National Opera, The Rape of Lucretia
© Erik Berg

The story originally takes place in ancient Rome, during the reign of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. Lucretia, the wife of the Roman general Collatinus, is the only woman in Rome who has stayed faithful to her husband, who is away fighting the Greeks. After hearing about Lucretia’s chastity, Tarquinius is challenged by the Roman general Junius to “test” it. Tarquinius rides towards Rome, and when he comes to Lucretia’s home, he is offered a room. During the night, the prince sneaks into Lucretia’s room and tries to seduce her. She refuses him, but he is certain that she actually wants him, and so he rapes her. The next morning, Tarquinius has gone, and Lucretia sends a messenger to Collatinus telling him to come home. Collatinus enters with Junius, and he starts comforting his wife, who tells him what happened the night before. Collatinus tells her it was not her fault and that Tarquinius is entirely to blame, but she feels that she can never be clean again from the shame of the rape, and she kills herself.

To this story are added a Male and Female Chorus, who comment on the action and reveal the thoughts of the characters. They are also Christian interpreters of this pagan story. The opera opens with a prologue in which the Male and Female Chorus tell the back-story, and it ends with the Male and Female Chorus discussing what has happened, the Female Chorus seeing no reason to this pain and suffering, and the Male Chorus telling her that all pain and sin is given meaning through the suffering of Christ.

Director Thaddeus Strassberger’s decision to partly update the setting to modern times is a good one, creating an almost uncomfortable closeness to the subject and highlights just how modern and timeless the story really is. The set is minimal, with white marble floors and a large, grey counter dividing the stage in half. On the left-hand side of the stage is a sort of living room where most of the action involving the men takes place. The right-hand side is a bedroom, where most of the action involving the women takes place. Instead of a marble floor in the bedroom, there is a floor mosaic, clearly evocative of ancient Rome. Everyone, except the women, are dressed in contemporary clothes at the beginning of the opera. The women are wearing outfits reminiscent of ancient Roman clothing. It is only after Lucretia has been raped that the women enter the present.

Strassberger also makes the Male and Female Chorus part of the action itself. They are not only commenting on the drama, but actively participating in it, yet they are powerless as the action unfolds. They can do nothing as Lucretia is being raped by Tarquinius. They are people of the present day watching an ancient story unfold, trying to act as the conscience of the characters. Yet they cannot stop what happens. They cannot stop history from repeating itself; as Lucretia is being raped, so is the Female Chorus.

As with the staging, the singing proved very strong indeed, with not a single weak link in the cast. Especially good were the Male and Female Chorus of Brenden Gunnell and Marita Sølberg, and the Tarquinius and Lucretia of Espen Langvik and Katija Dragojevic. The orchestra also provided some beautiful playing under the direction of Magnus Loddgard.

The Rape of Lucretia is not an easy opera. The subject matter is shocking, even in our day, and it resonates powerfully. Unlike other operas where a character’s death or torment can feel melodramatic and unrealistic, The Rape of Lucretia feels almost shockingly real. By bringing the action into the present, Strassberger succeeded in making it all even more real. No longer are we watching characters living millennia ago; instead, we are seeing the people around us. The setting is not just intimate – it is almost claustrophobic. It almost gets too real. And brilliantly so.