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
Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear