Fiona Shaw: ‘Operas are more interesting than plays’

Ahead of the Telegraph’s exclusive live stream, the actress-director tells Rupert Christiansen why a dark Britten opera has lured her back to Glyndebourne

Fiona Shaw

One of Benjamin Britten’s most powerful but inscrutable creations, The Rape of Lucretia (which will be streamed live from Glyndebourne here on August 9) is unlike anything else in his oeuvre, even though it’s resonant with themes that obsessed him.

Composed just after the war, following the tragic Peter Grimes and preceding the comic Albert Herring, it ranks as one of the first true chamber operas: 100 minutes long, it requires only eight soloists and a dozen instrumentalists, who combine to create a haunted and haunting sound-world – austere, primitive, anxious, nocturnal – through a libretto written by the pacifist playwright Ronald Duncan.

Watch an exclusive live stream of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia on Sunday August 9

The story has its source in classical authors such as Livy and Ovid, as well as Shakespeare, although Duncan drew most closely on a contemporary version by the French dramatist André Obey.

The plot, superficially, looks simple. The Etruscan general Tarquinius accepts a drunken, army-camp challenge to test the honour and chastity of Lucretia, the perfect wife of his comrade Collatinus. Tarquinius rides to Rome and is taken in by Lucretia as a welcome guest. Later that night, he enters her bedroom as she sleeps and rapes her. When Collatinus returns home, Lucretia kills herself, unable to live with her shame.