Friday, 5 February 2010

Groundbreaking Lucia di Lammermoor ENO

FOR SATYAGRAHA, 2007 and 2010, please click HERE and HERE. Please see formal review of Lucia HERE. These are first thoughts. Lucia di Lammermoor is pure theatre. Walter Scott's novel reinvents Scotland as pre-Victorian potboiler. Donizetti adapts it to High Romantic Italianate melodrama. Far from being set in any specific time or place, this opera inhabits a strange world of the imagination. All the more reason for intelligent interpretation. David Alden's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, at the English National Opera, breaks new ground because it draws power from the tension between the lyrical music and the horror of the narrative.

Because setting in this opera is so ambiguous, the set design itself plays a significant role, commenting on and expanding the ideas implicit in the opera, adding a deeper layer of meaning. The background's too complex to explain. What we need to know is that two families have been involved in a fight to the death. With hues of grey, green and white, this set design speaks of faded glory, marble halls neglected and left to ruin. This set reminds us that Lucia's family is on the brink of annihilation. Enrico isn't simply a brute forcing his sister into marriage. He's desperate for survival, and Lucia is the last weapon left to him.

Donizetti's music is so beautiful that it lulls us, but that's part of the horror. The object left stage, glowing a luminous green, represents the glass harmonica. The instrument is actually played in the pit by Alexander Marguerre but Alden and Charles Edwards, who designed this evocative set, make sure we don't lose sight of what we hear. The strange, hypnotic drone of the glass harmonica was believed to induce insanity in those who heard it, so Donizetti wasn't using it purely for surreal musical effect. Its very presence signals danger. Donizetti's audience would in theory have picked up on the implication, that they, too, might go mad like Lucia, through no fault of their own. The conductor, Antony Walker, made sure Marguerre (one of the few glass harmonica players in the world) got a bow, but unfortunately the Coliseum audience didn't seem aware why. Surely they're not saturated with theremins ?

Updating the costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) to buttoned-up late Victorian also added to the interpretation. Real 16th century Scottish Calvinists probably didn't waltz. but for Donizetti, the wedding party had to be joyful, to contrast with the brutal transaction the wedding celebrates. The "Victorian" context also draws out the subtext of sexual repression in this opera more clearly than Scott or Donizetti would have dared. It's perfectly valid. Lucia might be traded for power and money but her personality isn't stable. She sees ghosts, and grieves for her mother, but falls instantly in love with Edgardo when he kills a wild animal right in front of her. Blood, death and love inextricably connected in her psyche. No wonder losing her virginity drives her to stab Arturo, even though his advances were kindly.

Anna Christy's Lucia is portrayed as a child still in the nursery, playing with dolls in a narrow single bed. Shocking as that might be, it's perfectly in keeping with the meaning of the opera. Christy's tones range towards shrillness, but that is much more in character, and valid for the part. Callas brought out the more erotic, sensual side of the role, especially in the frustration of the mad scene, but Christy emphasizes the vulnerability.

Some might look askance on Enrico's fondling her. But Enrico is tragic too. In this production, Alden has Brian Mulligan play with a toy cart, as if this Enrico doesn't want to face the grown-up world any more than Lucia does. It's a masterly insight, enhanced by Mulligan's unchildlike physique and timbre surprisingly delicate for a baritone.

The mad scene takes place in a stage with curtained backdrop above the main stage. This, too, is insight, for it depicts marriage as a public ritual. By rejecting sex, Lucia is also rejecting society. Perhaps Christy's Lucia is drawn to this Edgardo because he, too, is a misfit. The role was sung by Barry Banks (after 18/2 by Jaewoo Kim). Edgardo's family history weighs heavily on him (hence the portraits on the walls) but essentially, Edgardo is an outsider, the last primitive Highlander in a civilized "Victorian" milieu. What is unusual in this production is that he kills himself with Enrico's gun instead of his sword, but even that could be explained, given the idea that Edgardo represents a way of life that's become outmoded, doomed as he and Lucia are in the "proper" world of bonnets, watch fobs and bombazine.

With Lucia, Edgardo and Enrico destroyed, the future, as such, rests with figures like Raimondo Bidebent (what a name!). Clive Bayley's portrayal of the parson is sympathetic - no Calvinist hellfire and brimstone here. Even when he attacks Normanno (Philip Daggett), he's not specially impassioned or vindictive. In short, this Raimondo represents a counter to the extreme, inflamed passions that drive Lucia and Edgardo to their deaths. Alden's approach to Raimondo via Bayley adds yet another element to the opera, but it reflects Sir Walter Scott's concept of a lost past, and Donizetti's non-literalism. The English translation, by Amanda Holden, complete with rhyming couplets, was unsettling if you're used to the Italian, and had its funny moments but that, too, enhanced the sense that there's something not quite natural in the realms of Ravenswood.

A more formal and technical review will appear shortly in Opera Today.

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