Friday, 8 April 2016

Pulling focus - Katie Mitchell's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House
photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor; Peter Hoare, Ludovic Tezier, Diana Damrau, Rachael Lloyd, Charles Castronov, Kwangchould Youn, Taylor Stayton, dir: Katie Mitchell, cond: Daniel Oren; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 7 2016
Well sung but over-fussy and interventionist.

Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau
photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Franco Zeffirelli's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opened at Covent Garden in 1959 with Joan Sutherland in the title role and was revived regularly until its final outing in 1988. Since then Lucia has been a rarer visitor. Christoph Loy's 2003 production, imported from the Deutsche Opera am Rhein, seemed to bring an unwelcome sense of Germanic de-construction and even humour to the work and was not revived. Now Katie Mitchell has directed a new production which opened on 7 April 2016. Even before the opening there was controversy as a letter from Kasper Holten warned of the graphic violence. In the event we needn't have been worried, around us in the Amphitheatre the murder scene elicited not gasps of horror but titters of amused laughter.

Katie Mitchell directed with her regular partner Vicki Mortimer designing, and lighting by Jon Clark. Joseph Alford was movement director and associate director, with Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown as fight directors. Daniel Oren conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra. Diana Damrau was Lucia with Charles Castronovo as Edgardo, Ludovic Tezier as Enrico, Peter Hoare as Normanno, Kwangchul Youn as Raimondo, Rachael Lloyd as Alisa and Taylor Stayton as Arturo.

Kwangchoul Youn, Diana Damrau - Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Kwangchoul Youn, Diana Damrau - photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
The opera was set in the mid 19th century, in the era of crinolines and seemed to be intended to explore the piece from Lucia's point of view. The articles in the programme book included one on the emergence of feminism, and another entitled 'Gothic Histories and Gothic Heroines'. The Gothic was certainly there, the church yard (which was where Edgardo and Lucia met in the first scene) was a really 19th century Gothic horror, but Ravenswood itself was a well appointed 19th century mansion. We saw a lot of it because Mortimer's set divided the stage into two and each scene had two visions, for the opening scene it was the church-yard and Lucia's dressing room, then moving to Lucia's bedroom and her bathroom, then the drawing room and her dressing room and so on.

This enabled Mitchell to tell more of the story than is usual, so that she could focus on Lucia. Lucia (Diana Damrau) with the help of her companion Alisa (Rachael Lloyd), was a far more active heroine, dressing up in men's clothing to meet Edgardo (Charles Castronovo). And when meeting Edgardo, she throws herself at him and starts ripping his clothes off so that their love duet became a graphic sex scene. This gave the duet a rather jejeune aspect, I don't really want to watch a couple dry humping whilst singing Donizetti no matter how attractive Charles Castronovo looks semi-naked. But in the context of Mitchell's production this was not quite gratuitous because during the opening of Act Two (set three months later) we see Lucia suffering from morning sickness, the effects of her liaison with Edgardo beginning to tell.

Ludovic Tezier - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Ludovic Tezier
photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Up to the end of Act Two the production seemed over fussy but essentially unobjectionable, though I began to tire of Mortimer's desire to show us everything. During the crucial wedding scene, do we really need to see Edgardo climbing in through a window and sniffing around Lucia's dressing room?

But in Act Three, Mortimer's theatrical event and Donizetti's opera started to rather part company. During the Wolf's Crag scene we were treated to the sight of Lucia starting to seduce her new husband Arturo (Taylor Stayton) and then when his defences were down, trying to murder him with Alisa's help. This is where the laughter came in. The Wolf's Crag scene is a long one so Arturo took a lot of murdering and rather than shock or horror, the scene for me evoke Monty Python. This entirely upstaged the terrific duet for Edgardo (Charles Castronovo) and Enrico (Ludovic Tezier).

This continued into the next scene as Lucia proceeded to have a miscarriage, again upstaging Raimondo (Kwangchul Youn) and his announcement of Lucia's madness. For the final scene Edgardo's cavatina was paired with Lucia's preparations in the bathroom and her suicide in the bath (complete with running water). And the final cabaletta had Edgardo rushing to the dying Lucia and committing suicide himself (by now the bloody water overflowing the bath).

By the end of the opera I was wondering whether Mitchell really liked Donizetti's opera and she certainly did not seem to trust Donizetti's music. But I think the simple answer is that the opera does present the story she wanted to tell. She used this approach very creatively in George Benjamin's Written on Skin but here someone should have warned her that the scenes in the last act just pulled focus too much. I suspect that, given complete freedom, Mortimer would have preferred to create a far more interventionist approach.

Her obsession with naturalism and realism made me develop a certain pickiness and start to wonder about details of the production, did they have silent flushing toilets in the 1850's, shouldn't Edgardo have been wearing a vest, wasn't Arturo's underwear too 1930s, not to mention the fact that everyone had slip-on shoes.

But what of the music?
Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo, Rachael Lloyd  - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Final scene
Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo, Rachael Lloyd  -
photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
There was a strong cast and if you closed your eyes we heard an admirable, if rather old-fashioned performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. I had been hoping that with a new production we might have had some sort of exploration of 19th century performance practice (the sort of thing Charles Mackerras was doing with WNO in the 1980s and 1990s). But with Daniel Oren in the pit we got a heavily dramatic and very interventionist account of the piece, though his speeds were sometimes fleet there was a tendency to stop too often to admire a phrase and to shape everything. The result was, perhaps, highly sympathetic to the singers but pulled Donizetti out of shape. Certainly it had me hankering from the lithely dramatic Donizetti of ETO's Pia de'Tolomei (see my review).

Diana Damrau made a strong and feisty Lucia. Her voice has darkened somewhat and the balance of the tessitura lowered a little since we first heard her at Covent Garden as Zerbinetta in 2002. This is no bad thing as Lucia is a role which is rather more spinto than the later 19th century would have us believe. Damrau still has an astonishing command of the fioriture too. In the opening scene she seemed somewhat uneven, with the sheen gone from her voice. But the crucial scene with Ludovic Tezier's Enrico brought a new strength and purpose to Damrau's voice to match her demeanour as Lucia. This scene was terrific and riveting, and Mitchell's approach worked here as the extra knowledge we had (Lucia's pregnancy) added to the tension of the scene.

Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Lucia's Mad scene
Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo - photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Lucia is a big role, and Mitchell made it bigger so that by the time of the mad scene Diana Damrau had been on-stage for nearly all the opera. Damrau's musical performance of the mad scene was admirable and she certainly colluded with Daniel Oren in the highly interventionist style of performance, so that phrases we stretched and bent almost in isolation. The result was very specific, and you either thought it magical or not, though I did worry that Damrau's approach lacked the colour, light and shade that the piece needs. What worked against it for me was the Michell clearly likes lots of people on stage, so that for the mad scene Lucia was joined by her vision of Edgardo and two ghosts.

Did I mention the ghosts? They wandered through the whole opera, the one the ghost of Lucia's murdered ancestress mentioned in her opening narration and the other the ghost of Lucia's mother (I think). I still can't quite work out what their function was. In the mad scene they basically distracted from Diana Damrau.

Also, the staging emphasised the basis of the scene in the fact of Lucia's miscarriage rather than accepting it as an operatic convention and allowing the drama on-stage to follow the music.

Charles Castronovo was a virile and sexy Edgardo. Very highly strung, the production emphasised how controlling he was too; his explosion in the wedding scene was masterly and it was clear that all the men in Lucia's life were out to control her in their own way. Castronovo sang Edgardo very robustly with a lot of swagger. He certainly fired on all cylinders during the terrific wolf's crag scene, and still had reserves (just) for the climactic double aria, where he equalled Damrau in commitment to both musical and dramatic values.

Ludovic Tezier was equally impressive as a truly unlikeable Enrico.  As I have said, both his duets were strong combinations of music and drama, and in many ways the high-points of the opera. Kwangchoul Youn made a strongly sympathetic, robust Raimondo and making him the one solid dependable piece of Lucia's world so it was a shame that the crucial scene after the mad scene where Raimondo's rounds on Normanno was cut. Peter Hoare made a strongly characterful Normanno, and Taylor Stayton's Arturo seemed a nice, essentially good bloke caught up in shenanigins that he did not understand.

Rachael Lloyd as Lisa did far more than we might normally expect in a more traditional opera, and she did so with great aplomb and sang strongly too.

Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
The Wolf's Crag Scene
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - Royal Opera House  photo ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
In Buxton Festival's production of Lucia di Lammermoor last year, director by Stephen Unwin used a mixed approach and gave the big set pieces their own space rather than attempting detailed naturalism. This is an approach which Mitchell could usefully emulate. Her production was full of good ideas but her busy, over-fussy approach eventually detracted from the drama rather than contributing to it, and you longed for Donizetti's dramatic music to be allowed to speak for itself.

I have deliberately omitted the star rating from this review as to mark the production down would be unfair to the the superb musical performance from the singers. Covent Garden is given the opera a long run with seven performances in April with this cast, and then four performances in May with a cast including Aleksandra Kurzak, Stephen Costello and Artur Rucinski. All are conducted by Daniel Oren (see the Royal Opera House website for more details).

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  1. I'm afraid wild horses wouldn't be able to drag me to this production - I've read lot's of comments by the Critics, & it sounds not for me! Too much happening on the split stage, thus distracting, running bath water drowning out the singing, Orchestra taken at the wrong tempo, Chorus cramped on the Stage, audience laughing during the murder scene. As one Critic has said "A complete waste of time & money!" I have seen many wonderful Lucia's & just like I believe an OUT of the EU is a risk not worth taking, I believe a visit to this Lucia also a risk not worth taking!

  2. I don't think it's distracting most of time. Let's be honest, it's not like the story (and even music for orchestra) of this opera are super complex. I actually think it's not a bad idea to show how Lucia kills her (legal?) husband, when the men are doing some to be frank quite silly fighting deal on the another side. Maybe because I am the computer game generation and I am used to viewing divided screens + subtitles. Divided stage worked well for Act 1, too.
    There are some bad taste there, though. I am totally fine with the feminist idea and I don't mind if Lucia seeks sex and love if she wants to, but there is still something wrong in the sex scene in the first Act. Even there's nothing wrong with a pushy and quick sex when you don't have time, it doesn't fit the scene of promising a marriage...


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