Monday, 14 December 2015

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Liège, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor 

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2015

Jesús Lopez Cobos, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Celso Albelo, Ivan Thirion, Roberto Tagliavini, Pietro Picone, Alexise Yerna, Denzil Delaere

Culturebox - 25 November 2015

Donizetti's opera adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's 'The Bride of Lammermoor' is so bound up in the period gothic themes of ghosts, revenge and madness that there seems to be little point in updating the work on the stage or seek to deconstruct it for any deeper meaning. The best that one can do is frame the work with a little historical distance from the melodrama, but as we've seen with the Royal Opera House's production of that other Scott adaptation, Rossini's La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake), there's not an awful lot to be gained from such an approach either. Better surely to just present the work in its own terms.

We'll reserve judgement on that until we see Katie Mitchell's new production at Covent Garden next year, but in the meantime, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège under the direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera decide to stick with the traditional approach for Lucia del Lammermoor, and in a big way too. Conductor Jesús Lopez Cobos even goes right back to Donizetti's original manuscript to find a purer dramatic version of the composer's vision before it and its famous mad scene became the favourite toy of the world's greatest coloratura sopranos over the ages.

Make no mistake though, whatever way you approach Lucia di Lammermoor you still need a soprano of great ability and you also need to convey the essence of the gothic, with thunderstorms and heavy mists drenching the stage in the atmosphere of its Scottish locations. It wouldn't be like Stefano Mazzonis or Liège to let us down on either front, and indeed they manage to give a fair account of the work as it is on its own terms with even a little bit of necessary flair where it is required. Rather than appear stuffily traditional then, there is a wonderful solidity to the Liège production in both the staging and the singing that anchors the opera a little more securely than might otherwise be the case.

That doesn't mean that there is any lack of distinct interpretation or personality applied to the work. There's a full three-dimensional quality to the music and to the staging here that allows us to explore the heart of the drama. Jesús Lopez Cobos sets the tone well in the moody, rumbling overture, while the stage is coloured a bruised purplish-blue to presage the gothic storm to come. The set gives us castle ramparts, a forest and a fountain, as well as a full tower that rotates to let us in on the looming crisis between rival Ashton and Ravenswood clans. Enrico has plans for his sister Lucia's marriage, but she is in love with Edgardo from the Ravenswood family and Enrico intends to put a stop to that.

The lighting in particular reflects all the moods and conflicting emotions that are bound up in the story, and the costume design of the well-wrapped clansmen is also far more realistic of what one would wear living in a Scottish castle in a 17th century winter. Even that however is not without some stylistic flair that seems to give real substance and body to a romantic melodrama. Settling for a largely traditional approach in the production then, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and there is inevitably a bit of both here, but it ultimately yields worthwhile results.

The dramatic declamations of the overheated (or hard-to-swallow) libretto and the more prosaic moments of the music would be difficult to get through if everyone was standing around and singing out to the audience, but Mazzonis manages to keep the characters engaged with one another. The upside of this is that combined with the attractive staging it's enough to keep the audience engaged and ready for the big moments when they occur. As long as you have good singers in the roles - and that's a big enough ask - you're on sure footing with this approach.

The ghost in the fountain aria ("Regnava nel silenzio"), the sextet and the ending of Act II, the mad scene in Act III and the conclusion are all vital, and fortunately the main performers and the chorus are all up to the task. Annick Massis has force and control of the coloratura, but more importantly has what Cobos demands for this production and that's the dramatic character to get the essence across without the unnecessary elaboration that has been added to the role over the years. Celso Abelo is Spanish, but he has a great Italian tenor voice and is impressive in the role of Edgardo. This is the kind of strong central singing team that is required for this work and they acquit themselves admirably.

Another original element that Cobos brings back to the work is the use of the glass harmonica for Lucia's mad scene. Along with a more restrained approach to the singing by Massis, this gives the scene more of an effective haunting quality rather than the full-blown off-her-rocker insanity with which Lucia is more often characterised. Or, depending on your expectations for this work, it could come across like the murder and decapitation scene that takes place in a room on the tower; a rather a rather bloodless affair, lacking in the kind of intensity you might expect.

There is more enough drama within the storyline and within the original musical score however for it to work on its own terms and for the purposes of this production, and it is indeed an enjoyable account of the work that clearly meets with the approval of the Liège audience. If Massis takes the role of Lucia down a step, Abelo is good enough to make up for the difference for the final scene to have all the necessary impact. Even if the blocks of masonry that he pulls down upon himself seem to bounce in rather too much of a rubbery fashion to do any real damage, the illusion of opera staging, brought together on so many other levels here, provides all the necessary weight.

Links: Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Culturebox