After the large scale of his grand opera Peter Grimes, Britten turned to a considerably pared-down work for his first Glyndebourne production in 1946. It is a chamber opera, for only 8 singers and an orchestra of 14 – an ‘austerity’ opera for the post-war period of economic hardship and rationing (clothes coupons had to be used for the production’s costumes). As it was Glyndebourne’s only production that year, there was a double cast so the singers could rest on alternate days. The two Lucretias were Kathleen Ferrier and Nancy Evans, and Peter Pears alternated with Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz in the role of Male Chorus.
The opera contains some of Britten’s most exquisite music, particularly in the scenes for the female characters. But it is a painful and tragic story: while her husband Collatinus is away fighting, Lucretia is raped by the visiting Etruscan Prince Tarquinius. Unable to live with what has happened, she commits suicide the following day. The ending of the opera, with its Christian ‘framing’ of the story, has attracted great controversy over the years: Fiona Shaw, who directed the opera for Glyndebourne in 2015 (having toured it 2 years previously), discusses the ending and other aspects of Britten’s remarkable work in this week’s film.