The composer Benjamin Britten, a registered conscientious objector and Christian pacifist, returned to Great Britain with his partner, Peter Pears, after a three year long self-imposed exile in the United States during 1939-42 at the peak of World War II. It was after witnessing the devastation of London and the British countryside that he began to write two of his greatest and most challenging pieces: The War Requiem and The Rape of Lucretia.
The Rape of Lucretia was his first chamber opera. In it Britten uses virtuosic vocal writing and eerie orchestral textures to weave together a hard-hitting, atmospheric theatre work that sounds and feels unlike anything else in the repertory. The story is framed by the observation and narration of a male and female chorus serving much the same role as in a Greek tragedy but in this context looking at the tragedy through Britten’s very personal Christian lens. The male and female chorus sing, “While we as two observers stand between this present audience and that scene, we'll view these human passions and these years through eyes which once have wept with Christ's own tears.”
The dramatic strength of this opera lies in its fearless treatment of taboos and the most primal means of human expression. Ronald Duncan based his English libretto on André Obey’s play Le Viol de Lucréce which in turn, was based on the 142-volume History of Rome, by the historian Livy tells the tragic story of the rape of a Roman noblewoman Lucretia by the heir apparent of the invading Etruscan military regime, Tarquinias. It was Lucretia’s martyrdom that resulted in the founding of the Republic of Rome.
The Rape of Lucretia does not back away from clearly detailing unbearable abuses of power, war, sexual violence, misogyny, xenophobia and martyrdom. The female chorus begins by stating: "It is an axiom among kings, to use a foreign threat to hide a local evil.” Britten views the story both as historical narrative and as an allegory to address the continued violence against women, colonialism, war, social, political and religious struggles still unfortunately part of the human condition.
The chorus "observers" are only tasked by Britten to recount the story. Despite this directive, they still attempt to stop Tarquinius's act of violence. Unfortunately, their attempt to change the course of history is thwarted, and they are tragically unable to prevent the inevitable crime. They can only repeat their endless narrative to each “present day audience.”
Seen in allegorical terms, this production explores the Pagan symbolism while asking the question: how can we of faith now stand and watch without feeling complicity? Is forgiveness or redemption humanly possible? Can Christianity or any other religion help us to understand or stop the cycle of continued violence against women, the resurgence of racism, xenophobia, war and domestic gun violence? It is these questions that make this magnificent allegorical work even more relevant in our current times of violence at home and abroad.
It must be our mission as artists in society to face these challenges with diligence and depth of study coupled with a commitment to our audience to fiercely and courageously engage as artists in all aspects of the human condition. In this production we do not shy away from the reality of good and evil portrayed in Duncan’s and Britten’s allegory of “the white dove and the poisonous viper." In our present complex world where wars still rage, Britten asks us to look with “eyes wide open” and consider with our hearts and good faith how to stop the endless cycle of violence and war and live to our greater potential as artists and human beings.
If you or someone you know is a victim of violence or experiencing a mental health related crisis the links below will direct you to resources that can help:
Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support: call or text 988; chat at 988lifeline.org. Connect with a trained crisis counselor. 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7/365. Visit the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for more information at 988lifeline.org.
- Darya Zholnerova, Director and Robin Guarino, Dramaturg