The Rape of Lucretia and Les Vepres Siciliennes: Excess and elegance at the opera

Neither Verdi’s <em>Les Vêpres Siciliennes</em> nor Britten’s <em>The Rape of Lucretia</em> are straightforward.

The Rape of Lucretia/Les Vêpres Siciliennes
Glyndebourne/Royal Opera House

Culture loves a problem child, and no genre more than opera. Unfinished works, dramatically flawed works, just plain weird ones – we love them all – and opera houses across the world have spent centuries refusing to give up on some particularly challenging cases. While not the most hardened offenders, neither Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes nor Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia are straightforward. Each has issues for directors to wrestle, and this month two high-profile new productions have opened, both hoping to rehabilitate their charges once and for all.

Of the two, Les Vêpres is the less yielding. For a start it’s enormous. The original score includes a 40-minute ballet in the middle, and all other aspects of this grand opera balance up to that insertion. Hoping to beat the French at their own operatic game, Verdi (already the successful composer of Rigoletto and La traviata) threw all he had at this obscure tale of a 13th-century Sicilian rebellion against the French.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between an Italian opera composer wrestling back grand opera from its French masters and Sicilians attempting to reclaim their homeland, and this becomes the basis for Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s production that relocates the action to the Paris Opéra, where Les Vêpres was premiered. It’s an excuse for magnificent meta-theatrical gestures as the Royal Opera House audience gazes back at itself onstage, with lashings of chorus girls, Sicilian peasants and French army officers to fill any dramatic longeurs in Verdi’s uneven score.

Excess – generous, riotous, overwhelming – is something of Herheim hallmark, and it seems churlish to probe the motivations of a production so literal, so Verdi-esque about its smoke and mirrors (not to mention so propulsively driven from Pappano’s pit). But try as I might to line up concepts and emotions I couldn’t quite manage it. Was the extended opening rape scene a back-story to explain the vengeful urges of Erwin Schrott’s Procida (a ballet-master, helpless to protect his dancers from French troops)? What was the cherubic executioner doing in Act IV?  And why the cross-dressing finale?

Let go of these details however, and you have a spectacle of serious heft. The largest chorus of the season hurls sound to the back of the amphitheatre and Pappano’s orchestra glows and burns with the ardour of a hundred revolutionaries. Lianna Haroutounian returns after her excellent Elisabetta in Don Carlo) as Helene, richly characterful in tone but struggling on opening night with her showpiece “Merci, jeunes amies” with its fearsome coloratura. Schrott’s Procida schemes and broods, while Michael Volle’s estranged father is supremely tender. Henri – torn between father and comrades – resonates brightly, but struggles dramatically against a straitjacket of a libretto.

Ronald Duncan’s libretto for Lucretia is traditionally named as one of the opera’s big issues. Wordy, certainly, but also spotlight-specific in its images and musical moulding of language, I’ve never seen the problem. In Fiona Shaw’s World War II-framed production any self-consciously literate modernist tendencies become neutralised, dissolved into the dramatic texture of the whole. Shaw deftly integrates Britten’s Male and Female Chorus into the action they cannot control – unwitting archeologists, tracing paths across the trenches and foundations of Lucretia’s house. Physically united in the quasi-Brechtian space, the temporal and dramatic separations of the narrators hits harder than often with this opera.

This is partly owing to Allan Clayton’s astonishing Male Chorus (none of Bostridge’s eerie, otherworldliness here, but a humanity that outstrips it easily for pathos) and Kate Valentine’s Female Chorus – all warmth and fleshy instinct. They lead a mixed cast encompassing David Soar’s Collatinus (almost too beautifully sung to chime with Britten’s ambivalent portrayal) and a ringing Lucia from Ellie Laugharne, to a disappointing woolly Junius from Oliver Dunn. Though competently sung, both Duncan Rock’s Tarquinius and Claudia Huckle’s Lucretia (impossibly moving, but vocally under-projected at times) exposed a lack of clarity at the core of Shaw’s reading. Is this Shakespeare’s Lucrece or Britten’s Lucretia? We often seemed caught uneasily between the two.

The rape scene itself felt fragmented and non-committal, uncertain where to place physical or emotional emphasis. Visually set apart from the rest of the action, which enjoys the euphemising protection of darkness, it claims certainty at precisely the moment that Duncan’s libretto courts ambivalence. Shaw’s shadowy visuals and covered spaces – graves, tents, beds – generate a lively friction with the pitiless clarity of text and music. What a shame though that Nicholas Collon’s direction lacked the blade-edge crispness that Britten’s orchestration can and should have. In the delicate balance of a production caught between dark and light, certainty and doubt, it tipped them just the wrong way.

And what of the opera’s afterthought of a Christian metaphor, the Christ-figure unearthed in the closing moments of Shaw’s excavation? Unsatisfying. But this in exactly the way it should be, the way Britten’s score and operatic structure require it to be. We close still questioning, still railing against the senselessness of it all, the inadequacy of an explicating morality. Shaw’s  production sheds light by retaining the opera’s darker corners. As solutions go, it’s elegant indeed.

Lianna Haroutounian as Helene in Les Vêpres Siciliennes at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Alastair Muir
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution