The Rape of Lucretia (Op. 37) is an opera in two acts by Benjamin Britten. Ronald Duncan based his English libretto after André Obey's play Le Viol de Lucrèce. The opera was first performed at Glyndebourne in England on July 12, 1946. It is the first work to which Britten applied his term "chamber opera."
Prologue The Male and Female Choruses explain the situation in Rome: ruled by the foreigner Tarquinius Superbus and fighting off a Greek invasion, the city has sunk into depravity. The two choruses describe their own role as Christian interpreters of the pagan story about to begin. Throughout the opera the Male Chorus will narrate the thoughts of the male characters, and the Female Chorus those of the female characters.
Act I In an armed camp outside Rome, Tarquinius, Collatinus, and Junius are drinking together. The previous night, a group of soldiers rode home unexpectedly to Rome to check on their wives, all of whom were caught betraying their husbands, with the single exception of Collatinus' wife Lucretia. Junius, whose wife was among the faithless majority, goads young Tarquinius, the king's son, into testing Lucretia's chastity himself. The impulsive prince calls for his horse and gallops off to the city alone.
At Collatinus' house in Rome, Lucretia is patiently spinning with her servants Bianca and Lucia. She longs for her absent husband. As the women prepare for bed, there is a knock at the door: Tarquinius. Though fearful, they cannot refuse to offer the prince hospitality.
Act II As Lucretia sleeps, Tarquinius creeps into her bedroom and awakens her with a kiss. She begs him to go, but he, certain that she desires him, rapes her.
The following morning, Lucia and Bianca are glad to discover that Tarquinius has already left the house. Lucretia enters, calm but obviously devastated. She sends a messenger asking Collatinus to come home. Bianca tries to stop the messenger, but Collatinus arrives at once (accompanied by Junius). He comforts his wife lovingly, but she feels that she will never be clean again. She stabs herself and dies. The cast mourns. Junius plans to use this crime by the prince to spark a rebellion against the king.
The Female Chorus is left in despair at the moral emptiness of this story. But the Male Chorus tells her that all pain is given meaning, and all sin redeemed, in the suffering of Christ. The two end the opera with a prayer.