Friday, 10 August 2018

Small scale challenge: a studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera

Fulham Opera - Lucia di Lammermoor
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor; Nicola Said, Alberto Sousa, Ashley Mercer, dir: Sarah Hutchinson, Fulham Opera, cond: Michael Thrift; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 August 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A chamber version of Donizetti's dramatic opera, rescued by fine performances from the lead singers

For its second contribution to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, Fulham Opera brought a revival of their production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which was originally presented at St John's Church, Fulham in November 2017. Sarah Hutchinson directed, based on Jim Manganello's original production, but this must have been very much a re-invention as the smaller studio at the Arcola Theatre is a very different space to Fulham Opera's home in Fulham. Nicola Said sang Lucia, with Ashley Mercer as Enrico, Alberto Sousa as Edgardo, John Wood as Arturo, Simon Grange as Raimondo, Rebekah Jones Alisa and James Bowers as Normanno. Michael Thrift was the conductor and Ben Woodward, artistic director of Fulham Opera, accompanied on the piano.

Doing Donizetti on a chamber scale is a great challenge, on a number of levels. For a start, Donizetti's accompaniments do not lend themselves to simple piano accompaniment and though Ben Woodward is a fine pianist, the piano reduction from the Ricordi vocal score left a lot to be desired in terms of supporting the voices and in the variety of colour and texture. In such a small space, performing is a challenge for the singers too, not only is the audience alarmingly close but singing Italian bel canto music requires the voice to sound fully so you cannot hold back. The result was, at times, very loud and the ensembles extremely so.

Also, stylistically Donizetti does not leave much room to manoeuvre and being so close to the singers we could hear every detail. The young cast came from a variety of stylistic backgrounds and it was clear that not all had a secure knowledge of bel canto technique, there were plenty of moments when the shape of the vocal line was pushed towards Verdi or even Verismo, though admittedly this problem is not confined to smaller fringe companies. But thanks to strong and wonderfully engaged performances from the principals, there was much to enjoy.

The production, designed by Anna Yates, placed the action roughly in modern times but keeping the details of the plot so that the communication problems between Lucia and Edgardo were still based on letters (no mobile phones here). The background was left sketchy, but costuming suggested Edgardo as old money (Alberto Sousa first appears in a Barbour and a flat cap), whilst the Ravenswoods were clearly new money and when Nicola Said's Lucia first appears her outfit is pure 'Essex Girl'.

Said made an appealing and rather sparky Lucia, at first quite together yet very much a live wire. In her opening solo, she revealed a finely vibrant voice which coped admirably with the tessitura. Technically strong, she was also a neat stylist and throughout the evening there was much to enjoy. In her solo in Act Two, with Said singing at a quieter, less vibrant level, there was great beauty too. Of course, everyone was waiting for the Mad Scene and Said did not disappoint. This was a very traditional version, rather than one of the modern editions, and Said included all of the ultra-high notes. She has all these, but I felt that she might want to investigate some of the modern editions. What I liked about the Mad Scene was that it felt all of a piece with the opera, rather than Said's party piece. This was very much Lucia as drama, and that helped enormously.

With Lucia di Lammermoor we tend to concentrate on the title role, but the role of Edgardo is equally challenging. One of the biggest problems in an uncut version of the opera is stamina, Lucia is long for an Italian opera of the period and Edgardo is a big sing. The Wolf's Crag scene at the opening of Act Three was traditionally often cut, to give the tenor a breathing space before his big final aria. I have heard a number of fine tenors come unstuck, running out of steam in at the final hurdle.

Alberto Sousa paced himself admirably, and still had the power and energy for all those top notes in his final cabaletta. But there was far more than stamina to his performance, he was a fine stylist with a great sense of the language so that at such close quarters we could hear plenty of lovely detail. I suspect his voice tends towards Verdi rather than Donizetti, but he never pushed the line in the wrong direction. This was a highly intelligent performance, which was something of a problem for the character. It is difficult to play Edgardo as an intelligent man, his behaviour when he learns Lucia has got married prevents that. Lucia di Lammermoor is one of those operas whose plot depends on someone, usually the tenor, not asking questions. Sousa successfully gave us a sense of Edgardo's overwhelming jealousy, and musically there was lots to enjoy. And that final aria was finely done indeed.

Ashley Mercer is a strong actor, and his creation of Enrico was vivid indeed, a nervy man under great pressure this was a superb performance, one which was fully rounded. As a singer, Mercer sounds as if he is probably more at home in later repertoire, but the rough and ready approach chimed in with the character's desperation, and Mercer's creation was vividly theatrical.

John Wood was a vivid voiced Arturo, not the wimp here he clearly had a vicious streak in him. Simon Grange made a dark-voiced, solid yet rather seedy Raimondo, whilst Rebekah Jones' spunky Alisa made you regret the character virtually disappears later in the opera. James Bowers gave sterling support as Normanno.

The chorus was, frankly, unbalanced with five women and one man (the opera's opening male chorus was re-invented as a mixed one) and they rather struggled with a production space where they could not see the conductor for much of the time. There was great enthusiasm and commitment, but I wanted a more balanced ensemble and the benefit of a more sympathetic acoustic.

I know that for many people, the sheer vividness of small-scale opera outweighs the limitations of confining a large scale genre into such a small space. But for me, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and it was the quality of the central three solo performances which really kept me engaged. But at the end, I still wished they had seen them in a larger theatre, my mistake in not catching the November 2017 performances in Fulham.

The company plans the 5-Act version of Verdi's Don Carlo (in Italian, alas) in November, not to be missed I think, see the Fulham Opera website for more details.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking at the BBC Proms (★★★★) - concert review
  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn  (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria) (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival  - Interview
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