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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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