The Rape of Lucretia synopsis
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Ronald Duncan after André Obey
First performed: 1946
The Male and Female Chorus, who remain on the stage throughout both acts, commenting on the action, foretelling, warning, deploring, in the manner employed by the Greek dramatists, set out the political situation in Rome.
The generals’ tent in the camp outside Rome. Evening
The Roman generals Collatinus and Junius are barely able to control their detestation of the Etruscan Tarquinius Sextus. All three are frustrated by idleness, by the oppressive heat of the summer night, by enforced separation from their women. They drink and brag and quarrel, and out of all of this is born Tarquinius’ resolve to ride before dawn, back to the city, and possess Lucretia, the idea of whose virtue is a torment to him. Junius, smarting under the knowledge that his own wife has been unfaithful, treacherously and subtly urges him on.
Tarquinius’s ride to Rome.
A room in Lucretia’s house in Rome, the same evening
Lucretia is in gentle colloquy with her nurse Bianca and her maid Lucia, who are spinning. The evening slips by until, just as the women are about to retire, the hoofs of Tarquinius’s horse are heard, and a moment later he knocks thunderously on the outer door. Bewildered though she is by his demand for a night’s hospitality under her roof, Lucretia cannot refuse it. She offers him wine, and all bid each other a ceremonious good night.
The Male and Female Chorus describe the paradoxical nature of the Etruscans. The Romans’ growing unrest is articulated.
Lucretia’s bedroom, that night
Lucretia is asleep in bed. Tarquinius stealthily feels his way towards her room and, once inside it, wakes her and declares his purpose. She protests and pleads, but as the scene ends, he rapes her.
The Male and Female Chorus comment on what has happened with the pity, divorced from time and place, that characterizes their attitude throughout.
A room in Lucretia’s house, the next morning
Lucia is happy and carefree, Bianca apprehensive, as they set about the daily task of arranging flowers for their mistress. Bianca knows her apprehension justified as soon as Lucretia enters, calm at first, then almost immediately distraught, demanding that Collatinus be sent for.
Collatinus and Junius arrive. Junius has surrendered to conscience, and they have not waited for any messenger. Lucretia returns, now dressed in purple mourning. She tells Collatinus what has happened, and though he tries to convince her that she is guiltless, she stabs herself and dies. Junius makes an impassioned plea to the Romans to avenge Tarquinius’ crime; Collatinus and the servant women mourn Lucretia’s death, but can make no sense of her suicide.
The Male and Female Chorus attempt an answer.
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