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
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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood