Wednesday 27 April 2016

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

Royal Opera House, 2016

Daniel Oren, Katie Mitchell, Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo, Ludovic Tézier, Peter Hoare, Rachel Lloyd, Kwangchul Youn, Taylor Stayton

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 25 April 2016

Katie Mitchell's intentions for the new Royal Opera House production of Lucia di Lammermoor and their potential for controversy had been well publicised beforehand. This was going to be a feminist reworking, one that put Lucia at the centre of the drama as a woman taking control over her own destiny, neither a victim nor someone acting at the behest of others, where even the heroine's famous descent into madness would be her own decision.

It's a fine idea and one that you might hope would bring a little more depth to the characterisation mostly abandoned by the librettist Salvadore Cammarano in this adaptation of Walter Scott's novel 'The Bride of Lammermoor'. Unfortunately, while there is some notional resistance in Lucia refusing to marry the wealthy Arturo at the demand of her brother Enrico for the sake of the Ashton family fortune, choosing instead to love Ernesto, the son of an old rival family, this revisionist view runs contrary to what actually happens. Katie Mitchell's version of the work might not entirely succeed in its intentions then, but it does nonetheless have some impact.

It's hard to give any real depth to the opening scenes of Act I however, and the director's "updating" the work from the 18th century to the mid-19th century of Donizetti's time hardly makes a significant difference. Vicki Mortimer's set designs make use of a split-screen technique, meaning that Lucia remains on the stage even during the scenes when there is all-male plotting going on, but this comes into play to more effect later in the opera. Spicing things up with a sex scene between Lucia and Edgardo might not seem like much either, but there are consequences here also that have more of an impact later. The fact that the following Act II fairly simmers with tension means that the production team and the singers have put the necessary work in. And it shows.

It's not the only thing that shows. Lucia, in this version, is pregnant and is seen suffering from morning sickness at the start of Act II. This is undoubtedly the most important detail that Mitchell includes to 'fill out' the characterisation, establishing a greater bond between her and Edgardo and providing a more convincing reason - since she miscarries after her murder of Arturo and loses a lot of blood - for her becoming somewhat unhinged at the turn of events and for her dying so dramatically at the conclusion.

Whether that carries though as convincingly in practice is debatable, but it certainly makes Lucia's Act II scene with Enrico much more intense when there something more real at stake and not just something that could be dismissed as a romantic illusion. The fact that it is sung with tremendous passion by Diana Damrau and Ludovic Tézier in a way that belies any belief that Donizetti's music is repetitive and unsophisticated. Daniel Oren's conducting of the work here, when it's combined with dramatic realism and expert singing, shows just how intensely dramatic it can be.

The rest of this highly-charged Act then falls neatly into place. If Enrico seems to let his enemy get away with rather a lot by gatecrashing Lucia's wedding to Arturo, it's only because it suits his purpose to see Edgardo further destroy the bond between him and Lucia. Mitchell also makes sure that the ghosts have a large part to play in determining the nature of this relationship, and it always helps when they are made physical. Here they are often seen coming between Lucia and Edgardo, the ghosts of the past as terrible family histories that present an insurmountable obstacle to their union. The final touch of the ghost of Lucia's mother pressing the kiss of madness into her forehead works wonderfully.

Despite this, Act III still doesn't seem able to overcome some of the inherent dramatic weaknesses of the bel canto opera, nor really live up to the intentions of Mitchell's revisions. The split-screen might provide greater rationale for the usually off-stage action - allowing the murder of Arturo to be acted out in its full gory detail - but it divides attention and takes away from where the focus of the Wolf's Crag scene (and the music for it) is intended. It doesn't make things easy for the video director capturing this for the cinema screening either, the camera never seeming to know which scene to settle on, but appearing to spare the viewer from some of the more gruesome images of this controversial scene, which kind of works against the intentions of the production.

If the overall impact is nonetheless impressive, it's not because of any "feminist" agenda, but because the characterisation is stronger and fuller than you usually find it in this opera. It's also unquestionably because Diana Damrau brings a lot to the role with an outstanding singing and dramatic performance. It becomes a bit too much to try to make every note of the mad scene coloratura mean something and relate to a recognisable reaction - it still feels like so much yodelling - but it's still a committed performance that has real depth and intensity. By way of contrast, Charles Castronovo avoids the kind of mannerisms that can sometimes sound like an effort to emulate Jonas Kaufmann, and he gives a more grounded lyrical performance. Ludovic Tézier's luxurious rounded tone for Enrico contributes to a well-integrated cast of singing and performance that delivers as much as could be expected from this bel canto work, and even perhaps a little bit more.

Links: Royal Opera House