Wednesday 31 October 2018

Disturbing intensity: Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor - Lester Lynch - English National Opera (Photo John Snelling)
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor - Lester Lynch - English National Opera (Photo John Snelling)
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor; Sarah Tynan, Eleazar Rodriguez, Lester Lynch, Clive Bayley, dir: David Alden, cond: Stuart Stratford; English National Opera at London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Madness is at the heart of David Alden's production, the only way out for a Lucia controlled equally by brother and lover

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor - Eleazara Rodriguez, Sarah Tynan- English National Opera (Photo John Snelling)
Eleazar Rodriguez, Sarah Tynan
English National Opera (Photo John Snelling)
Is it really ten year's since David Alden's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor debuted at English National Opera? The production has made a welcome return to the London Coliseum (seen Tuesday 30 October 2018) where we do not see nearly enough of Italian bel canto in its serious vein. Whatever the production's drawbacks, the big advantage is that Alden treats Donizetti's work as serious drama, and manages to mine some striking and disturbing veins in the piece.

This time around, Lucia was sung by Sarah Tynan with Eleazar Rodriguez as Edgardo and Lester Lynch as Enrico, plus Michael Colvin as Arturo, Clive Bayley as Raimondo, Sarah Pring as Alisa and Elgan Llyr Thomas as Normanno, Stuart Stratford conducted.

From the outset, Alden created a strikingly disturbing atmosphere with the help of Charles Edwards 'abandoned mental institution' style sets. It is not just that all is not well at Ravenswood, but Alden makes Lucia a commoditised and infantilised figure, supposedly kept under control by her family until passed on to a chosen husband. I am not sure that the suggestions of incestual interest on Enrico's part in Act Two are necessarily a good thing, but this points up one of the weaknesses of Alden's approach. He is never able to hint or suggest, instead, he presents us with a clear narrative and every scene tells us what to think. I feel that the production would be stronger if there was less detail, less fussy, stylised stage business and that the audience was given room to make up their minds for themselves.

Within these limitations, Alden and Stratford drew a strong and absorbing performance from their cast. This is a long opera, and ENO did a full version, two and a quarter hours of music, including the opening scene of Act Three which always used to be traditionally cut. And we weren't just along for the singing, though that was superb, but for the drama too.

Sarah Tynan is quite a light-voiced lyric Lucia. You sense that this style of voice fits with the depiction of Lucia in the production (the first Lucia in the production, Anna Christy was similarly light-voiced) and perhaps a more spinto-inclined sound would not fit so well. But I have to confess that I do rather like the more dramatic, spinto-type take on the role.

Tynan fully identified with the portrayal of Lucia, giving us a profoundly disturbing picture of a woman who was controlled and neutralised by society, fighting back in the only way possible. This meant that in Acts One and Two she was relatively passive, and one of this production's clever strokes is to make Edgardo just as controlling, in his different way, as Enrico. It is clear, this Lucia will be controlled no matter what, so madness is the only way out.

Tynan sang a new cadenza in the mad scene (it is becoming clear that the present 'traditional one' was introduced in the later 19th century and probably written for Dame Nellie Melba), though the programme did not credit the composer (nor were we told anything about the edition or keys used in the performance). This cadenza moved the role away from sheer display, and the virtue of Tynan's performance was the way she moved the fioriture into the territory of emotional intensity. Alden did not help her at the beginning of the mad scene, keeping her up stage for far too long.

By having a theatre on-stage and using its stage for parts of the mad scene, was Alden trying to tell us that Lucia's madness was simply a performance? If so, Tynan gave the lie to this with the intense truthfulness of her performance, complemented by some superb glass harmonica playing.

Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez trained in San Francisco and is a member of the ensemble in Karlsruhe and clearly, languages do not phase him as he sang in wonderfully clear, communicative English.  He is a lyric tenor (his ENO debut was as Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville), but Wagner's David in Die Meistersinger is in his repertory too. Most importantly, he has the stamina for the role of Edgardo, giving a powerful account of the scene with Enrico at the opening of Act Three and still creating a superb final aria. Edgardo is a tricky role, and one solution is to make him dim but here he is clearly aware, just as keen to control Lucia in his own way. I want to hear more of Rodriguez in this repertoire, there are other serious Donizetti and Rossini roles it would be good hear.

Lester Lynch's Enrico was not so much vicious as weak, lashing out when he felt not in control and beating him self up after his sexual approach to Tynan's Lucia. For the crucial scene in Act Three with Edgardo, Lynch's Enrico was fuelled by alcohol to give him dutch courage. Whilst Lynch's significant (silent) role in the final scene was understandable in the context of Alden's narrative, with this Enrico supplanting Edgardo even amongst the tombs of his ancestors, it did rather feel as if Alden was trying to encourage Lynch to upstage the tenor's big final moment!

Clive Bayley's Raimondo was stunning, a superb combination of blindness and intense moral uprightness, and Bayley's very clear diction made every word count too. Sarah Pring played Alisa as someone completely out of her depth, perpetually panic stricken and wide-eyed, which meant that this Alisa, more governess than a companion, gave Lucia no support. Elgan Llyr Thomas was wonderfully controlled and creepy as Normanno. Michael Colvin made such an oily Arturo, you felt he certainly had it coming to him!

Under Stuart Stratford's direction, both chorus and orchestra performed Donizetti as if it was part of their daily diet, and you do rather hope that Straford might be invited to conduct another such opera soon.

Amanda Holden's translation was quite plain and direct, and I rather missed the poetry of Cammarano's original. Lucia di Lammermoor is not naturalistic, and Alden's approach certainly is not, so why can't the English reflect this and give us the sort of poetry that Italian's would have expected. The cast's communicativeness was a bit patchy, but clearly, a good effort was being made to bring out the English text.

This is not a production for every day, David Alden brings such a disturbing intensity to the opera that it rather masks any other possible interpretations. He conception was superbly brought to life by a cast who clearly identified fully with the piece.

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