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

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle