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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Is Apple Music really deleting users’ songs without their consent?

It's hard to tell – but the iTunes Terms and Conditions seem to cover the company even if it does.

Musician James Pinkstone was a new Apple Music user when he realised that 122GB of music was missing from his computer.

According to a long blogpost he published on Wednesday, Apple Music attempted to “match” his music with songs in its online library via a function called “iMatch”. It then, Pinkstone claims, deleted all 122GB of his original files – collected from CDs, bought, and even created himself over a lifetime – from his hard drive.  

Luckily, Pinkstone was able to restore his library from a backup, but if what he says is true, it’s outrageous for a number of reasons. Apple Music streams music to users, meaning you need to be connected to Wi-Fi while you’re listening, so it isn’t the same as having an iTunes library of songs you actually own. You can download individual songs from the service to your device, but as Pinkstone writes, “it would take around 30 hours to get my music back” in this way. Your music and playlists also disappear if you stop paying your Apple Music subscription fee.

Meanwhile, iMatch has been notoriously rubbish at matching your files with music library entries, sparking lots of user complaints already. Pinkstone says a Fountains of Wayne song was replaced by a later version, for example, so he would have been unable to get the original song back.

So is it true? It’s not totally clear what happened to Pinkstone’s library, but here’s what we know so far.

Apple has said it doesn’t delete users’ music without their consent

Apple declined to give me a statement, but referred me to the piece “No, Apple Music is not deleting tracks off your hard drive – unless you tell it to” on the site iMore, which is not affiliated with the company but which the spokesperson described as “accurate background”.

Its author, Serenity Caldwell, explains that you have “primary” and “secondary” devices on Apple Music, and that on secondary devices (usually phones or tablets) in particular it’s advisable to delete your physical copies of songs to free up space – after all, you can stream everything via Apple Music anyway or download individual songs if you need them.

However, users should never delete files from their “primary” device (usually your desktop or laptop computer) because they’d lose the master copy of their songs forever.

…But customers might be giving that consent by accident

Jason Snell, a writer, speculated on Twitter that a misleading dialogue box may have caused Pinkstone his problems.

When you delete a song on any device, a dialogue box pops up offering to “delete” the song from “your iCloud Music Library and from your other devices” (emphasis mine). It’s more than possible that users would click this “delete” button rather than the less obvious “remove download” option which removes the song only from that device.

Apple Music’s terms and conditions cover it if it does delete your songs

Pinkstone seems to argue that he did no such thing, however, and it’s possible that there’s a bug as yet undiscovered by Apple which is deleting songs at will.

However, as Pinkstone points out, iTunes terms of use actually do cover it in the event the programme damages your files, or your property in general.

One section reads:

“IN NO CASE SHALL APPLE, ITS DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES, AFFILIATES, AGENTS, CONTRACTORS, OR LICENSORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, SPECIAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES ARISING FROM YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE OR FOR ANY OTHER CLAIM RELATED IN ANY WAY TO YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS IN ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS, OR ANY LOSS OR DAMAGE OF ANY KIND INCURRED AS A RESULT OF THE USE OF ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS POSTED, TRANSMITTED, OR OTHERWISE MADE AVAILABLE VIA THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, EVEN IF ADVISED OF THEIR POSSIBILITY.”

Elsewhere, it defends its right to withdraw access to Apple products at will  including songs and albums you're under the impression you bought from them outright:

Apple and its principals reserve the right to change, suspend, remove, or disable access to any iTunes Products, content, or other materials comprising a part of the iTunes Service at any time without notice. In no event will Apple be liable for making these changes.

Tl;dr: Until there’s some explanation for Pinkstone’s lost library, it might be a good idea to avoid using the iMatch function, or even Apple Music altogether. It seems very unlikely that the software would be able to delete files without your consent, but given you aren’t covered if they do, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.