The Rape of Lucretia - Benjamin Britten - ST. PETERSBURG CHAMBER OPERA in conjunction with the Warsaw Chamber Opera (Warszawska Opera Kameralna) - 17 December 2017 - Warsaw

Benjamin Britten - The Rape of Lucretia

Musical drama in two acts with an Interlude

Libretto by Ronald Duncan based on the play of André Obey


Director: Yuri Alexandrov
Production designer: Zinowij Margolin

ANTON MOROZOW - Collatinus, Roman General
NATALYA VOROBYEVA - Lucretia, wife of Collatinus
JADGAR JUŁDASZEW - Junius, Roman General
ALEKSIEJ PASZIJEW - Tarquinius, son of the King of Rome
VICTORIA MARTEMJANOWA - Bianca, Lucretia's old nurse

Direction, staging - Yuri Alexandrov
Scenography - Zinowij Margolin
Costumes - Wiaczesław Okuniew
Lighting - Irina Wtornikowa
The scenic movement - Dawid Awdysz
Director - Tatiana Karpaczew


Musical direction - Nelli Abdi
Conductor - Maksim Walkow

Photography: Jarosław Budzyński (click on to enlarge - finer rendition)

 Tarquinius and Lucretia  
Titian 1571
[Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]

This admittedly rather strange, intense and controversial opera, written for the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier by Benjamin Britten, arguably the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell, was premiered shortly after the conflagration of World War II on 12 July 1946. The reduced forces of this first form of a Britten  'chamber opera' (8 singers and 13 musicians), partly resulted from postwar financial constraints on opera productions. Together with the previous great opera Peter Grimes, this work established him as England's greatest composer. 

The highly dramatic and musical treatment of the subject of rape and its Christian apotheosis has attracted often conflicting moral, artistic, ethical, religious and sexual interpretations. Perhaps most tellingly it is an allegory and protest against war - Europe 'raped'. It is known Britten visited the former Nazi  concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen not long after its 'liberation'. One can only guess of the effect this might have had on such a sensitive spirit.

Rape is an unpleasant and difficult subject to deal with in any genre let alone an opera. This accounts for the relatively rare performances of this demanding work until recent times. The story has existed in Western culture for almost two millennia.  Benjamin Britten and the pacifist playwright Ronald Duncan wrote in the programme for the benefit of the audience attending the  Glyndebourne première: ‘after the play Le viol de Lucrèce by André Obey and based on the works of Livy, Shakespeare, Nathaniel Lee, Thomas Heywood and F. Ponsard’.

The Benjamin Britten - Ronald Duncan cooperation was surprisingly subjected to a degree of censorship. Documents in the archive at the British Library indicate that an official of the Lord Chamberlain compared the opera to the sexually uninhibited novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence which caused such outrage on publication in 1928. The official commented: 'I most certainly think we should draw the line at the somewhat transparent effort by the Chorus on page 5 of Act II to wrap up an ugly fact in pretty language. It is little better than the obscenities in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.' Surprisingly Britten agreed to amend the libretto.

This Russian production was very much in the classical vein of the human response to overwhelming passion. This was in the sense of a spectacularly and visually intense artistic presentation of the psychological and physical forces involved. The staging utilized magnificent Russian voices, costumes, and high quality orchestral playing to create a general ambiance of Byzantine exoticism. 

The historical background was presented by 'Him' and 'Her', two soloists dressed in rather functional and poor postwar clothing. They represent the Male and Female Chorus who comment throughout on the action as in a Greek tragedy and sometimes mirror the activity taking place on the main stage. In some respects they could in fact be considered to be dominant and 'present' timelessly during the stage action. 

'They, like two stalkers, introduce us to a story that repeats spirally - the same cruelty, violence, loneliness, barbarism ... I deliberately put these figures in the audience so that the audience will live through this story with us' said the Russian Staging Director, Yuri Alexandrov.

'Her' (the soprano Julia Pticyna) and 'Him' (the tenor Wiktor Aleszkow)

The events of the opera take place around 508/507 BC and are based on historical fact which may well have taken place but with variant detail. 

On opening the opera, the voice of the powerful tenor Wiktor Aleszkow filled the small hall with sudden and tremendous volume and drama, the first of the Russian male voices in the opera that really made one 'sit up'. 

The first scene opens in a military camp outside Rome. Three men – Collatinus (the husband of Lucretia, a Roman general), Junius (her kinsman, also a Roman general), and Tarquinius (Prince of Rome, who will rape her) – drunkenly discuss the virtues and uses of women. 

Collatinus, Junius, Tarquinius

Oh, the only girl worth having is wine, is wine!

Junius, Tarquinius

Love, like wine, spills easily as blood.  
And husbands are the broken bottles. 

They are unashamedly replete with excessive testosterone. They decide to test the chastity of their wives or lovers by calling on them unexpectedly (rumour has it in Rome that all have been unfaithful while their husbands have been at war). The magnificent voices of the two Russian baritones (Junius, Tarquinius) and bass (Collatinus), sometimes frighteningly powerful in the small hall, filled it with rich masculinity and a splendid sense of the dominant patriarchal, bucolic society of the day. Bacchus rules in this bivouac. 

One cannot help reflecting on a similar 'experiment' in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte  but with rather a different development and outcome!

An interlude narrated by 'Him' (the Male Chorus) portrays Tarquinius riding to Rome. The horse has two symbolic roles, being both a sign of Tarquinius’s chivalry and of his rape. 

Now who rides? Who's ridden? 

Tarquinius, the stallion? Or the beast, Tarquinius? 
In both blood furious with desire impetuous 
burns for its quietus 
with speed aflame through sweat and dust 
the arrow flies straight as lust.

  Oh, the only girl worth having is wine, is wine!

Junius (Jadgar Juldaszew) and Tarquinius (Aleksiej Paszijew) brawl 'like peasants' in the camp, consumed by resentment and jealousy over mutual accusations of  marital infidelity and other absurd insults to their so-called macho 'masculinity'  

Junius in a fury at slights on his marriage is envious of both the marital and political rewards promised Collatinus in Rome by Lucretia's fidelity

Lucretia is considered more chaste than any of the other wives. In fact the very word 'chaste' defines her in the Britten sense of 'naming' characters. The second scene takes place in Lucretia’s house. Lucretia and her maids in fine and refined voice welcome Tarquinius (in a rather adoring fashion, he being a Prince of Rome) and take him to his room. 


The Prince bows over Lucretia's hand 
His unruly eyes run to her breast 
and there with more thirst than manners rest. 

  Je t'adore - Tarquinius , Prince of Rome with Lucretia and her maids shortly after arrival at her home in Rome

The three women appear identically costumed in this performance which only goes to emphasize the 'homogeneity' of Britten's characterization of  the women in the opera.

Binaca (mezz0-soprano Victoria Martemjanowa), Lucretia (contralto Natalya Vorobyeva and Lucia (sopranos Karolina Szapowalowa / Jewgienija Krawczenko) spinning cloth

'Him' and 'Her' sing of  the political tensions and anti-Etruscan feeling in Rome (Tarquinius is an Etruscan). Act II Scene I takes place in Lucretia's bedroom. In the political dimension of the opera, anti-Etruscan feeling by the Romans is expressed here by the characters.

The Etruscans' prosperity was due 
to the richness of their native soil, 
the virility of their men 
and the fertility of their women.

When the Etruscan princes conquered Rome 
they founded the Imperial City, building it in stone. 
And the Etruscan builders watched the proud Romans sweat
as they toiled in the mountain quarry. 

Then the victors embellished their palaces 
with delicate silver and tapestries 
which they taught the Roman nobility 
to weave in the shadow of an Etruscan cellar. 

Through all their art, there runs this paradox: 
passion for creation and lust to kill. 
Behind the swan's neck they'd paint a fox, 
and on their tombs a wooden phallus stood.


Lucia, Junius, Collatinus 


Down with Tarquinius! 

Lucia, Bianca, Collatinus, Junius 


Now the she-wolf sleeps at night 
but each Roman marks his man. 
When the she-wolf bays at night 
then their throats shall know our knife. 

Down with Etruscans! 
Rome's for the Romans!

Britten's music is often seductive particularly the graceful and touching musical depiction of Lucretia asleep, a C-major 'lullaby' sung beautifully by the soprano Julia Pticyna ('Her') over her sleeping body. 

Tarquinius enters consumed with lust. Lucretia is dreaming of her husband Collatinus. When Tarquinius kisses her she associates this with him. 

Loveliness like this is never chaste!
If not enjoyed, it is such a waste!
Wake up, wake up, Lucretia!

She wakes and in a scene greatly intensified by the extraordinary musical score, attempts to repel Tarquinius. She utters in half-asleep terror a much misconstrued and variously interpreted ambiguous remark:
In the forest of my dreams you have always been the tiger.

Does she welcome this sexual advance? The slight ambiguity is freed to run:

How could I give, Tarquinius, since
I have given to Collatinus,
in whom I am, wholly;
with whom I am, only;
and without whom I am, lonely?

Yet the linnet in your eyes lifts with desire, 
and the cherries of your lips are wet with wanting.
Can you deny your blood's dumb pleading? 
The contralto Natalya Vorobyeva who plays Lucretia convincingly answers with tremendous almost hysterical drama ‘Yes, I deny, I deny’. We believe her given that the condition of her eyes, lips, and blood are probably an unfortunate symptom of the erotic reality of her dream, in which (as the libretto makes perfectly explicit) she desires Collatinus. 

Is it not a perverse male fantasy that a woman may desire rape? Convention says so. She screams vehemently  ‘No!’, ‘Never!’, ‘I deny!’, ‘You lie!’, ‘I refuse!’, and ‘Please go!’ a total of twenty-six times before the rape, most immediately on waking. Some modern productions (predominantly at Glyndebourne) explore this ambiguity in terms of the sexual mores of the 1940s when the opera was premiered and the more evolved, often prurient, sexual notions of 2017.
The rape is perpetrated during an interlude dominated by sexual equine symbolism, musically a quartet between Lucretia, Tarquinius, 'Him' and 'Her'.
See how the rampant centaur mounts
And serves the sun with all its seed of stars.
Now the great river underneath the ground
Flows through Lucretia, And Tarquinius is drowned.

Tarquinius, Prince of Rome, violently lusts after Lucretia

In this production the rape was spectacularly theatrical and musically terrifying with Lucretia displayed on a spinning disc and Tarquinius swinging athletically on a chain T bar like an acrobat before the final denouement and penetration on the floor. The power of rampant instinct driven by unheeding masculinity forcibly raping innocent, almost childlike purity could not have been more dramatically or breathtakingly presented. The bar is swung by an ominous bearded (introduced) silent character named as the 'Witness', Wladislaw Mazankin, who hovers about the stage through the entire performance adding colour and a distinctly Orthodox Russian religious atmosphere to proceedings.

The uncensored lines of the libretto read:

He takes her hand
And places it upon his unsheathed sword
Thus wounding her with an equal lust
A wound only his sword can heal

These were replaced by Britten and Duncan in the original 1946 production by the rather anodyne:

Poised like a dart! 

At the heart of woman. 

Man climbs towards his God.
Then falls to his lonely hell.

Lucretia rises to see her maids suggestively arranging flowers and singing of a beautiful day. The charming femininity and fine voices of the female cast in this scene together with the music that accompanies it is most affecting in light of the vicious, heartless and violent drama that has preceded it - Nature red in tooth and claw.


Oh, Bianca, then let me keep these roses, 
which in scarlet sleep dream in tight buds 
of when they'll open, 
be wanton with the wind and rain; 
and then be broken and forgotten. 
so will my pretty vase enclose 
the sun's extravagance: which is the rose.

Lucretia enters overwhelmed with grief. She is presented with an orchid but becomes furious and demands that a message is sent to Collatinus. The species of flower is important. 'Orchids take their name from the Greek όρκις, meaning testicle. This recondite allusion may have been intended by Duncan and Britten solely for the attention and intellectual delight of a classically educated, and therefore almost completely male, section of the audience.' (J.P.E. Harper-Scott). 

Upon the arrival of her husband Lucretia tells of her rape, but in a gesture of almost unbelievable magnanimity he attempts to relieve her of guilt. 

If the spirit’s not given 

There’s no need of shame 

The magnificent Russian bass Anton Morozow as Collatinus (with Jadar Juldaszew - Junius )  in magnanimous mood

Lucretia scorns his supplication and in a psychologically complex gesture tragically commits suicide. 

Lucretia, Collatinus 
To love, as we loved, 
was to live on the edge of tragedy. 

Even great love's too frail 
to bear the weight of shadows. 

(She stabs herself) 

I'll be forever chaste, 
with only death to ravish me. 
See, how my wanton blood 
washes my shame away! 

(She dies) 

The contralto Natalya Vorobyeva who plays Lucretia is harrowing and utterly convincing in the rape scene and its terrible aftermath. (Historically Lucretia died c.510 BC).

In an epilogue of mourning the political element resurfaces although this was not emphasized in this production. Junius can now use the crime committed by Tarquinius the Etruscan to seize power for Rome. At the time the political and revolutionary outcome may well have been the predominant and most significant result of the rape rather than the moral outrage and artistic imperatives we feel today in the face of this this crime.

'He' concludes the opera with, for me, a curious offering of Christian redemption.  Rather appropriate in some ways this production being so close to Christmas as we are. The music is in the key of C major, the same key of innocence as the affecting music of Lucretia’s final sleep before the crime of rape.

Is it all? Is all this suffering and pain... 
is this in vain?


It is not all. 
It is not all. 

Though our nature's still as frail and we still fall,

and that great crowd's no less along that road, 
endless and uphill; 
for now, He bears our sin and does not fall. 
And He, carrying all, turns around, 
stoned with our doubt, 
and then forgives us all. 
For us did He live with such humility. 
For us did He die that we might live, 
and He forgives the wounds that we make 
and the scars that we are. 
In His Passion, He is our hope, 
Jesus Christ, our Saviour. 
He is all. 
He is all.

The cast and Director at the curtain

The Staging Director Y
uri Alexandrov writes of the opera:

In Russia, the opera "Rape of Lucretia" was first staged by the "Saint Petersburg Opera" theater. "Lucretia" took a permanent place in the theater's repertoire.

We are responsible for making Britten's piece magnificently presented and receiving an adequate response from the audience. The artists present completely different manners and aesthetics in this performance than in the operas of Russian and Italian composers. It is simply impossible to "play" this music - it was originally written as an opera-protest, as a reaction to the events of the Second World War. Resigning from illustrativeness, we came up with a story. The play is dictated by the wonderful music of Britten ...

A monumental 'classic' Russian production to my mind that goes far beyond all the small scale notions that the term 'chamber opera' conjures in the English mind. Dostoyevskian in intensity, the theatrical and dramatic staging, presence of truly magnificent Russian voices both male and female and the Stanislavskian acting techniques profoundly engaged the audience physically, aesthetically and morally. This together with a fine orchestra and the talented conducting of the psychologically associative, complex music of Benjamin Britten, elevated the opera to more of something I would associate with Monteverdi or even Purcell. 

A deeply satisfying aesthetic, artistic and for some religious evening of a work with increasingly modern topical significance.

Paolo Veronese 1585

[Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]


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