Intelligent, feminist Lucia

12 Apr

I’m not a fan of Katie Mitchell’s work – I have memories of an Iphigenia in Aulis at the National where people milled around moving suitcases for about half an hour and I wanted to shoot myself.  Nor do I particularly like Daniel Oren – remember that plodding Sonnambula and that tedious Robert le Diable?  So I was not particularly expecting to enjoy the new ROH Lucia di Lammermoor, which I saw on 11th April.  This was the second night and there were reports of booing on the first night.

What I actually saw was one of the most brilliant, intelligent and interesting Lucias I’ve ever seen due, largely, to Mitchell’s direction and some very fine singing.  There were some doubts but, overall, this was took opera for the serious, dramatic piece that it is.

It’s set in the 1850s – not a bad decision for a patriarchal society where women were still seen as chattels and in a rather richer environment than Scott may have imagined. It also catches the gothick, sensational element of the opera.  The set is split in two for the whole opera with Lucia onstage for virtually the whole time and so we see what happens offstage with her while the men are telling the story.

So in the first scene she is preparing to meet Edgardo.  In the second they make love.  The third scene is between her bedroom and a very fine bathroom – she is clearly suffering from morning sickness.  During that scene, men remove her property from the room, presumably to take it to Arturo’s place: it brilliantly symbolises her helplessness and sheer lack of privacy: her retreat to the bathroom doesn’t save her from having to listen to Enrico and Raimondo.  During the Wolf’s Crag scene, we see her murder Arturo – he puts up quite a struggle – and then have a miscarriage, which is what pushes her over to madness.  In the last scene, we see her bleeding to death in a bath and taking an overdoes – the water floods onto the stage.

Within this, there is some marvellously truthful acting and direction that has you watching and engaging – you could feel the audience holding its breath in the pause before the sextet and actually watching the piece as if it were a play.  Enrico is a bullying, violent brother who threatens to hit Lucia – while Edgardo actually does so.  It’s a production that makes you angry and which treats the opera for what it is, an adult, angry, feminist drama.

There are some doubts.  Vicki Mortimer’s set looked a bit cramped in some scenes and I was not convinced by the need to have two ghosts.  More seriously, I couldn’t help feeling that Mitchell was telling Donizetti’s story the way she wanted it told by distracting you from the inconvenient bits that he actually wrote.  The Wolf’s Crag scene may not be great Donizetti, but it must have been extraordinarily frustrating for the Edgardo and Enrico to sing it, presumably acting their socks off, knowing that nobody in the audience will be watching them at all because a graphic murder is happening a few feet away.  Much the same happened to Raimondo’s aria – it must be quite difficult to sing knowing that, this time, Lucia’s having a miscarriage.  She took her overdose during Edgardo’s aria, but at least he got to sing the cabaletta in the bathroom with her.  What we had was Mitchell telling Donizetti’s story but using a different method from his.  It was compelling stuff and absolutely nailed what this opera is about, but at a price.  And the ROH might find that the price includes finding that decent baritones and basses may be reluctant to sing in future revivals.

Diana Damrau was Lucia.  She’s a singer I admire hugely and she threw herself into this interpretation.  Her mad scene was soft, internal, sung with fabulous pianissimi and a really intelligent, angry use of the coloratura.  Her entrance aria was nicely done and the duet with Edgardo wonderfully tender, that with Enrico angry and pathetic.  She portrayed Mitchell’s conception – an angry, helpless, loving woman – to perfection and her singing was of a piece with it.  And yet, it also felt a bit studied.  I missed the sheer virtuoso bravura that you get on record from Callas and Sutherland and which I remember particularly from Edita Gruberova in this house – this didn’t knock your socks off, it had you listening intently.  There’s room for both and you can’t argue with the sheer quality and intensity of Damrau’s performance.

Charles Castronovo was probably the best Alfredo that I’ve heard in the theatre: ardent and tender in the love duet and singing his final aria and cabaletta really well.  You believed in him.  Ditto Ludovic Tezier as Enrico – a heavy, bully of a man, singing with force rather than elegance, which fitted absolutely in this production.  I’m pretty sure that they both did the Wolf’s Crag scene really well.  Kwanchul Youn sang Raimondo nicely but didn’t make much impression as a character – possibly because his big aria was being upstaged.  Taylor Stanton was good as Arturo (a serious, slightly weedy character) and Peter Hoare very, very fine as Normanno – luxury casting here and it paid off.

Daniel Oren seemed to be entirely at one with the production and gave the finest performance I’ve heard from him.  I remember particularly his phrasing of the love theme – slow, loving, arching and heart-stoppingly tender.  The mad scene was delicate, hushed, the glass harmonica unearthly and working really well.  He worked up the drama and speed for the wedding and Act II finale which was as exciting as it should be.  The orchestra and chorus were with him throughout.

I’ve never believed that Lucia is a canary-fancier’s piece of nonsense and it’s great to see it treated as the serious drama of conflict and politics that it is.  This thoughtful, intelligent and compelling evening with some outstanding music was, with the recent Cav and Pag a reminder of how good the ROH can be and how opera can work as theatre rather than simply as a costume in concert.

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