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 Met Gala 2016: the dull, the terrifying and the brilliantly odd

The Met Ball is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it.

For those unfamiliar with the Met Gala, it’s basically a cross between a glossy red carpet affair and a fancy dress party: the themed prom of your dreams. Hosted by Vogue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it. Each year there is a theme to match the The Costume Institute’s spring exhibition – the only rules are stick with it, be bizarre, outlandish and remember that there’s no such thing as over the top.

This year’s theme was Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology. A man-meets-machine theme surely offers a world of endless possibilities: suits that move by themselves! Colour-changing gowns! Holographic ties! Levitating shoes! Floppy disk trains!

Or everybody could just come in silver, I guess.

The cardinal offence of the Met Ball is to be boring, and this year, almost nobody was free from sin. As Miranda Priestly would say: “Metallics for a technology theme? Groundbreaking.” Cindy Crawford, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian (both in Balmain, like always), Rita Ora and Taylor Momsen (wait, I mean Swift) all need to take along hard look at themselves.

The only thing worse than “I’ll just shove something shiny on” is “Mmmmm guess I’ll ignore the theme altogether and make sure I look nice”. Flagrant disobedience never looked so miserably bland. In this category: Amber Heard, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Uma Thurman, everyone in Topshop, and literally ALL THE MEN. I mean, Tom Hiddleston could be any human male at a posh event from 1858-now.

In contrast, plus points for arbitrary weirdness go to Sarah Jessica Parker for coming as some sort of virginial pirate, Lorde for her directional arm cast, Zayn for his directional arm plates, Katy Perry for her noble ensemble reminding us all of the importance of tech security (keep it under lock and key, folks!), Lady Gaga for coming as a sexy microchip, and will.i.am for… whatever that is.

The best theme interpretations in my mind go to Allison Williams for her actually beautiful 3D-printed gown, Emma Watson for her outfit made entirely out of recycled bottles, Claire Danes for coming as a Disney light-up princess doll, FKA Twigs for dressing as a dystopian leader from the future, and Orlando Bloom for coming in a boring normal suit and just pinning an actual tamagotchi on his lapel. Baller move.

The  best outfits of all were even weirder. Beyoncé couldn’t be outdone in this dress, seemingly made out of the skin of her husband’s mistress: as she warned us she would do on Lemonade, with the lyric “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine.” Of course this peach PVC number is also studded with pearls reportedly worth around $8,000 each.

Solange shone like the sun in this bright yellow structural creature (paired with some slick yellow leggings that nod to her sister’s outfit) proving yet again that she is the only woman on earth who can pull off looking like a cubist painting.

Kanye was possibly the only person to have ever worn ripped jeans to a fashion event hosted by Anna Wintour and the Met, studding a jean jacket to oblivion, and wearing pale blue contacts to boot - he and FKA Twigs could lead the dystopian future together. When asked about his icy eyes, Kanye simply replied, “Vibes.”

But my personal favourite of the night has to be Lupita Nyong’o, who, radiant as ever, wins points for being on theme in her afrofuturistic look and the technology behind her outfit (her dress is sustainably made by Calvin Klein for The Green Carpet Challenge). She looks absolutely stunning, and is as far from boring as it’s possible to be with two-foot-tall hair. Perfection.

All photos via Getty.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.