I went last summer to see the Merola presentation of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, an opera I have long been aware of because it has a contralto heroine, but had never seen before. It is an opera about love, in this case married chastity. Lucretia is the most chaste wife in Rome.
The production was noteworthy because there is an extended instrumental section with no implied action, and they filled it with the character Tarquinius, the Etruscan prince who ruled Rome at the time, taking an extended nude shower. Outside the theater were signs warning of immoral activity inside.
We know of this story because it came down to us as the explanation for the founding of the Roman Republic. If even the chaste Lucretia was vulnerable, there was no choice but to overthrow the dictator and found a government where all are free.
Britten has tried to turn this story into an anecdote in praise of Christianity, but does not succeed. Lucretia feels the violation of rape, demands that she be avenged and then kills herself. By this action she turns the world upside down. What has Jesus Christ to do with this? Is he trying to hide the unacceptable parallel that the English should try to overthrow their own monarchy?
Britten’s operas continue to hold their popularity as few others, but no one seems to want The Rape of Lucretia in spite of the seriousness of its theme and the beauty of its music.
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