Dramatically, Lucia di Lammermoor is perhaps the composer’s finest work, and one of the most obvious precursors to Verdi, but it’s also one of the most problematic to cast, not least because of its daunting historical association with some of the greatest sopranos and tenors of the twentieth century.
If any opera company can be relied upon to make a credible ensemble piece of an opera that’s known for being a star vehicle, it’s ENO, and this first new production of 2008 is a triumph. It may not be orchestrally thrilling — Paul Daniel’s conducting doesn’t really allow any rhythmic variation or space, at least for the first two acts — but the staging is dramatic, emotionally involving and coherent, and the principal casting is almost faultless. All did not go entirely to plan on opening night; singing the chaplain Raimondo, Clive Bayley succumbed to a chest infection part-way through the first act and he continued to mime the role to the voice of his cover, Paul Whelan, who is due to sing two scheduled performances of his own at the end of the run, but who on this occasion sang from one side of the proscenium.
In David Alden’s bleakly monochromatic production, with sets by Charles Edwards and costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, emotion takes second place to practical and political considerations. A fixation with the past — particularly childhood, and images of dead ancestors — prevents anybody from influencing their own future or bringing anything interesting or new into their lives. It has turned Enrico into a bitter, almost emotionless shell, with a perverse obsession with his naïve young sister, whom he keeps trapped in childhood before brutally ’breaking her in’ and throwing her into her unwanted marriage to Dwayne Jones’s soulless pretty-boy Arturo. Mark Stone’s sense of bel canto legato leaves something to be desired, but the darkness in his voice makes his Enrico deeply nasty.
Edgardo is really no better. While Enrico’s reaction to his surroundings and the events of his past have turned him introverted and cruel, Edgardo has become careless, rash and impetuous, which ultimately makes him almost as responsible for Lucia’s fate as her brother. Barry Banks’s vocal and dramatic power belie his small stature; his presence is easily a match for Stone’s, and his final aria sequence is thrillingly, beautifully sung.
The Mad Scene (Anna Christy in foreground)
In the tile role, Anna Christy’s remarkable physical portrayal and crystalline soprano — not audibly marred by the bronchitis which had prevented her from completing the dress rehearsal — make her utterly convincing as this troubled, abused young girl. There is something other-worldly about her voice, and its partnership with the glass harmonica (restored to the Mad Scene as Donizetti intended) creates a chilling resonance. Although the libretto refers to her passionate nature, passion is lacking; she is more of a dreamer. We first see her perched at one side of a miniature stage, gazing obliquely at the closed curtain; she is discovered there again following Raimondo’s revelation that she has murdered Arturo, and during the mad scene, after the curtain is pulled back to reveal her husband’s bloodied body, she gradually retreats into the “stage” area as if it is the realisation of a long-held dream.
Tellingly, the blood which drenches Lucia’s and Arturo’s wedding-night garb is almost the first colour that’s been onstage all evening; it serves as both a coup de theatre and a symbol of Lucia’s release through madness from the bonds of her dead, grey, repressed surroundings.
Ruth Elleson © 2008