Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 5 February 20093 stars

Lucia di LammermoorThere are many striking images and ideas in David Alden's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, currently being revived for the first time by English National Opera.

Alden views the Lucia-Enrico relationship in an alarming light, with a mixture of paedophilia (in the depiction of Lucia as a young, innocent girl), forced marriage and incest (in Enrico's sexually suggestive handling of Lucia in a number of scenes). This is carried further in the set design, where musty framed photographs of long-lost family members are grouped at the front of the stage before the opera even begins, and are later used to vivid effect in the final scene to indicate the gravestones of the dead Ravenswoods. This is doubly clever, since one of the opera's tensions is between the Ravenswood family and the Ashton family; the latter ousted the former from their castle, and we only realise at the very end that it's the ghosts of the Ravenswoods who have been haunting Lucia's brother Enrico (who's keen to hold on to the estate), rather than the Ashton's ancestors themselves.

Another powerful metaphor is the postmodern reference to theatre. When we meet Lucia in Scene 2, she's sitting like a doll on a false proscenium, through which Edgardo arrives. Later, the mad scene is delivered on the same stage, with the chorus sitting on rows of chairs on the stage, drawing attention to rather than apologising for the plot-decelerating virtuoso conventions of the bel canto; and the final scene of the opera is staged behind that set, taking us ‘behind the scenes' where Edgardo is awaiting the duel with Enrico.

Lucia di LammermoorTo an extent, there are some powerful innovations here, but at the end of the day I'm even less persuaded of the coherence of this concept than I was when the production was new. For one thing, by making Lucia into a little doll, she becomes almost passionless and expressionless; while it makes sense to depict her as being a chattel in the possession of her brother and husband-to-be, it also robs her of pathos to prevent her from giving full vent to her emotions. For another, Charles Edwards's unremittingly monochrome sets (ditto Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes) don't serve Donizetti's rich and colourful score at all well (though without doubt, they're in line with Alden's concept). Nor does it help to have Edgardo as a kilt-wearing buffoon or Raimondo as a stereotypically perverted clergyman.

During the interval, I heard a fellow audience member comment that it's almost as if the music doesn't go with this story, whereas the real problem is that at times the story has been channelled in a direction quite different to Donizetti and Cammarano's text, so that the light and colour that genuinely appears in the happier moments of the Lucia-Edgardo relationship in particular are lacking. And I often feel that when tragic dramas are treated as black from the word go, their deadly conclusions can be robbed of their ultimate power.

Musically, I found the performance almost equally monochrome, in spite of many good points. I think the main reason was that Antony Walker, in spite of running a tight ship on the whole, didn't manage to bring out the colours in the orchestration (or even the voices, at times). His tempos weren't leaden, but there was a lack of momentum on the whole, and a sense of style was missing for me. However, the use of the glass harmonica in the mad scene was immensely impressive, a highlight of the evening.

While it works from the point of view of her modest height and youthful looks, the decision to cast Anna Christy as Lucia also has implications on the impact of the voice: hers is a pretty but very light instrument that can cope with Donizetti's original, higher keys, but doesn't particularly lavish much tonal allure on the music until the very height of the mad scene. Barry Banks's Edgardo was the finest of the principals for me, largely because he tried to inject meaning into the text and communicate the words as clearly as possible. His death scene was a highlight of the evening, confirming his status as an artist of international quality.

Brian Mulligan gave a vocally secure performance as Enrico but didn't quite match it in the acting department, though one can't blame him for seeming uncomfortable with Alden's concept, and Dwayne Jones made less of an impression as Arturo this time around, not seeming quite on top of the high tessitura as previously. Clive Bayley's Raimondo was highly dramatic and creepy, though I felt his voice sounded tired in places; however, Sarah Pring excelled as a deeply-felt Alisa.

It's a shame that ENO has to resort to making this kind of opera about theatre to the neglect of the voice, since with the best will in the world, even a director as imaginative as Alden can't make it into something it's not. In our time, if not Donizetti's, Lucia has been famously sung by so many heftier voices that it's impossible not to be disappointed by this aspect of the current production. Nevertheless, there are some inspired moments, and the cast is unquestionably committed to its task.

By Dominic McHugh


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