Friday 8 June 2012

Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Holland Park

The weather seemed to match the opera's dark subject matter for the opening night (7 June) of Opera Holland Park's new season. The opera chosen was Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in a production directed by Olivia Fuchs and designed by Jamie Vartan, conducted by Stuart Stratford.

With Lucia di Lammermoor a director has to decide quite how straight to play things. Whether the story will be told in a plain manner, with the audience asked to supply all the interesting psychological insights, or whether the story will be taken for granted, overlayed with psychological subject matter. Fuchs and Vartan opted for a middle way, which gave the audience a clear telling of the story but made the psycho-sexual nature of the plot quite clear.

Another decision to be made, this time particular to Opera Holland Park, is how much of the house to use in the set. Vartan had designed a huge stone slab which, at the opening, obscured much of the facade. This slab, resembling slate or, more aptly, granite, moved and split apart to reveal elements of the facade. Only in the wedding scene did the slab split apart far enough to reveal the portico of the house in all its Jacobean glory.

Aldo Di Toro as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera Holland Park 2012
Aldo Di Toro – Edgardo
Photo by Alex Brenner
The other element of the set was a group of screens made of mesh. These were used to re-shape the acting area, but also to hint at other issues. Fuchs used them to suggest confinement, restraint and being trapped.

The fountain in act one was simply a circular shaped enclosure made of screens in which the ghost (made present in the form of an actor) distributed roses. This circular shape was used to confine Lucia (Elvira Fatykhova) prior to her interview with Enrico (David Stephenson) in act 2. Later in the same interview, it is Enrico who himself seemed to be confined.

During much of the wedding scene and the mad scene, the chorus were confined behind the screens looking for all the world like caged wild animals. And finally the Wolf's Crag, the retreat of Edgardo (Aldo di Toro) was itself a confining shape.

Each of the protagonists had their own demons. Fuchs's take on the opera is very balanced, you understand why people act and sympathise. This was extremely true of Stephenson's Enrico. Hints were given of his masochism (he appears in act 1 with a riding crop which remains a suggestive prop). Then in act 2 he spent some time sniffing Lucia's bed-sheets, giving hints of incest. Fuchs didn't push this, simply added layers to help us understand.

During the act 2 duet Stephenson didn't bluster but engendered our sympathy for his plight. Stephenson was a finely sung and immensely personable Enrico, one trapped in his own demons. Stephenson and Fatykhova were terrific in the duet, making it one of the high points of the first half of the opera, generating quite a crackle of electricity between them.

There was one further image which Fuchs and Vartan used, that of a bed. This appeared at the edge of the stage during the second scene in act 1, giving a clear hint about the physicality of Edgardo and Lucia's relationship. It was on and around this bed that Enrico and Lucia have their interview in act 2, and the bed was central to the opening of the wedding scene. Fuchs was making it clear that underlying everything there is the image of the woman being bought and sold for sex. Fatykhova's very buttoned-up submissiveness played into this

Fatykhova is Russian trained and has a bright, focussed soprano voice with an attractive steely edge to it, so that she is more spinto than coloratura, i.e. closer to the sort of voice that Donizetti probably imagined. She has all the notes (and the trill) and sang with a beautiful evenness, and no excessive vibrato.

Vartan's costumes placed the setting in the Edwardian period and Fatykhova had a confined, buttoned up look which fitted both the period and the character. Fatykhova's Lucia looked submissive and demure, but the voice told you otherwise. Fatykhova is an attractive, but restrained performer, not emoting overly; perhaps slightly old-fashioned in her style. Fuchs had obviously worked to create a vision of Lucia that sat with this. Fatykhova was lady-like and poised, certainly no silly girl.

Aldo de Toro is a big guy and his Edgardo was bold and masculine with a voice to match. But he can sing bel canto with the best of them and matched Fatykhova in the act 1 duet in fine fashion. They didn't quite create sparks, but then the relationship between Lucia and Edgardo is oddly edgy, Donizetti never gives them any unalloyed pleasure, we have to take that for granted.

The fourth character to come into focus in the first two acts was Raimondo, sung by Keel Watson. Watson is a big guy with a strong stage presence, combining the technique to sing Donizetti with a persona which can believably wrestle a gun from a man. His Raimondo was very vivid, far more of a participant than in other performances of the opera that I have seen.

Aled Hall as Arturo with the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera Holland Park 2012
Aled Hall – Arturo with the Opera Holland Park Chorus
Photo by Alex Brenner
This was a characteristic of this production, it was very much an ensemble piece with everyone contributing to the highly dramatic atmosphere. This was particularly true of the chorus who had their own, very threatening presence. For the wedding scene they were dressed in Edwardian formal finery, but the women in only red and black, and everyone wearing red gloves. When they erupted onto the stage during this scene they festooned the bed with red ribbon and helped created a dangerous, lascivious atmosphere. Later, when confined behind the screens, their dangerousness was still apparent.

Aled Hall's Arturo was older than usual, making a political marriage to a younger wife. Hall was brilliantly oily in this role, and it was clear that Hall's sexual interest would not be confined to his future wife. You rather feared for Lucia's future in this marriage.

Fuchs's staging of the glorious sextet was dramatic and intelligent. She eschewed simply placing people, no stand and deliver here, but equally no excessive scurrying about. Instead the ensemble was choreographed so that the stage movement reflected the music and the drama, making a superbly gripping piece of musical theatre. It helped of course that the singing here was of a high order, and well balanced with no one singer jostling for prominence.

Act 3 opened with a storm raging on stage and the weather outside doing its best to emulate it. Di Toro and Stephenson seemed hardly phased and their scene together fairly crackled with machismo and unspent energy.

David Stephenson as Enrico, Elvira Fatykhova as Lucia, Olivia Ray as Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera Holland Park 2012
David Stephenson – Enrico
Elvira Fatykhova – Lucia
Olivia Ray – Alisa
Photo by Alex Brenner
Then came the mad scene. Fuchs and Vartan opted for simplicity, there were few extra symbols, simply Fatykhova in a blood covered night dress and the fascinated/horrified chorus confined behind their screens. I had been hoping that Fatykhova would unbutton and let rip dramatically, but she remained poised even when distraught. Instead everything was in the voice, which again is probably as Donizetti intended it. Her account was gloriously sung and certainly very expressive; perhaps her madness was a little too musical and well sculpted, but who cares. This was intensely vivid singing and she was accompanied by the glass harmonica of Philipp-Alexander Maguerre creating a wonderfully airy exotic sound which perfectly complemented Fatyhkova's edgier timbre.

After the mad scene, Keel Watson ensured that the important (an often overlooked) little scene with Normanno (Nicholas Ransley)  was given its full weight.

In the final scene it was the turn of Aldo Di Toro to shine. I must confess that I did wonder how his voice would cope with Edgardo's final aria but the tessitura seemed to hold no terrors. He sang with power and finesse, it was quite thrilling. Di Toro has a strong stage presence which ensured that this aria was anything but a simple showpiece.

Nicholas Ransley was a personable Normanno, though his light voice took time to get used to the distinctive acoustic of the semi-open air theatre. Olivia Ray was a dignified Alisa, played more as a governess than as a friend.

The Opera Holland Park Chorus, as I have mentioned, had an important dramatic part to play. They matched this with some extremely fine singing, focussed and dramatic in impact, complementing the style of Fuchs's presentation. Chorus master Kelvin Lim is certainly to be complemented on his work.

Under Stuart Stratford, the City of London Sinfonia gave a crisp and exciting account of the score. Stratford ensure that the drama of Donizetti's music was to the fore, making maximum impact. His accompanying of the singers was sympathetic without being indulgent.

This was that rather unlikely thing, a real ensemble production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Fatykhova has the technique to hold her own as the centrepiece of any production, but Fuchs had surrounded her with a group of strongly drawn characters which help bring out the drama of Donizetti's opera. Fatykhova has the sort of voice that would seem suited to some of Donizetti's other darker, tragic heroines; let us hope Opera Holland Park ask her back soon.

Perhaps, ultimately this performance did not quite mine the drama and psychological state of the heroine as much as I would have liked. But Fuchs, Stratford and their cast created a dramatically satisfying account of Donizetti's dark and tragic opera.

See our Festival pages:

Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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