Op. 37 (1946, revised 1947)

Opera in two acts
Libretto by Ronald Duncan, after the play by André Obey

Setting: In or near Rome, 500 BC
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
First performance: 12 July 1946, Glyndebourne Festival Opera


Male Chorus: Tenor
Female Chorus: Soprano
Collatinus (a Roman general): Bass
Junius (a Roman general): Baritone
Prince Tarquinius (son of the Etruscan tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus): Baritone
Lucretia (wife of Collatinus): Contralto
Bianca (Lucretia’s nurse): Mezzo-soprano
Lucia (Lucretia’s maid): Soprano

What’s it About?

Act 1. The Male and Female Chorus describe the historical background to the story, and reveal their view of events to be that of a later, Christian era. The action is set in and around Rome immediately before the end of the reign of the Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus in 510 BC. At a military camp outside the city his son, the prince Tarquinius Sextus, is drinking with two generals, Collatinus and Junius. They discuss an earlier, unfortunate bet, in which the constancy of various Roman wives was tried and found wanting. Of the married men (Tarquinius goes to brothels) only Collatinus can boast a faithful wife, Lucretia, who was discovered sleeping alone in her husband’s absence. Urged on by the malicious Junius, Tarquinius decides to prove Lucretia chaste by attempting her virtue himself, and rides off to Rome. His arrival at her house produces consternation, but hospitality forces Lucretia to offer him a room for the night, despite her misgivings and those of her servants.

Act 2. Tarquinius’s purpose, however, is made clear when he wakes her and rapes her before leaving the house. The following morning her late appearance in a distressed, broken state, is only slowly understood by her nurse Bianca and made Lucia, and her husband is setn for. Collatinus arrives with Junius to hear the new, and despite his at least partial understanding of Lucretia’s ‘shame’ it is too painful for her to bear, and she stabs herself. Her death provides the impetus for the Romans to throw out the Tarquins. The Male and Female Chorus attempt to come to terms with these events in a Christian context.

Did You Know?

1. The role of Lucretia was written especially for the contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

2. It was a ‘chamber opera’, that is, composed for very small forces rather than a ‘grand opera’ such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. The Rape of Lucretia requires only 8 singers and 13 instrumentalists.

3. At the time, all operas needed to be passed for public performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The Office commented that one particular phrase (referring to Tarquinius’s ‘unsheathed sword’) be removed as it was ‘little better than the obscenities in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

4. It was premiered at Glyndebourne in July 1946 and was the only opera to be programmed that year. As a result, there were two casts, who alternated in order to save voices.

5. As many products in the UK were still rationed in 1946, the costumes were paid for with hundreds of clothing coupons.

Nancy Evans and Kathleen Ferrier (who shared the role of Lucretia in the first run of the opera) having their costumes fitted at Glyndebourne.


Flute (doubling piccolo & alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet in B flat & A (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon


Percussion (timpani, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, gong, suspended cymbal, triangle, whip, tambourine), harp, piano

String quintet (2 violins, viola, cello double bass)


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