And, perhaps he was wise to be wary as the graphic sex, sadism and barbarism of director Katie Mitchell’s recent production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National Theatre reportedly caused some audience-members to faint with revulsion and others to flounce out in disgust. Having now seen Mitchell’s Lucia, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holten’s cautionary announcement was not simply designed to generate some interest - for the production itself offers little, though the cast is uniformly impressive.
As the eponymous heroine, Diana Damrau deserves credit for her committed engagement with the physical and psychological extremes of Mitchell’s devising while successfully negotiating Donizetti’s high-wire vocal lines. She didn’t have much plushness or power at the top, but Damrau sang with precision, observing all the details in the mad scene’s disintegrating roulades and spiky staccatos, and holding nothing back in conveying Lucia’s distress - it was good to hear the glass-harmonica’s uncanny whistles too. Earlier in the opera, Damrau had delivered an eerily coloured entrance aria, and she convincingly portrayed the anger and resentment felt by Mitchell’s protagonist - who is more feisty than feminine. But, she didn’t have the strength or warmth to make her presence felt in the sextet.
Charles Castronovo was an ardent, lyrical Edgardo; the American-Italian tenor’s phrasing was refined and he displayed both fullness in the middle range and clarity up high. Castronovo also has a handsome stage presence and was fittingly heroic. Some of the best singing of the night came from Ludovic Tézier as Enrico; his baritone is strong but he uses it with subtlety. The Wolf’s-Crag confrontation between the two enemies was exciting and vigorously sung. Rachael Lloyd, as Alisa, and Taylor Stayton, in the thankless role of Arturo, made a solid contribution.
‘A pure and magnificent tragic romance’ was the critical response of Blackwood’s Magazine to Walter Scott’s novel when it was published in 1819. The novel overflows with the immoderations of Gothic romance - witches, madwomen, Byronic heroes, star-crossed lovers, derelict castles, public disgrace, financial ruin and ominous prophecies - and, burdened by familial, political and psychological fractures, its over-emotional heroine submits to insanity and goes on a murderous rampage. Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano were not ones to miss an opportunity for violent contrasts and tragic excess and give us a veritable bel canto soap opera.
Katie Mitchell is not that interested in either Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor or Donizetti’s opera, though. She has a different story to tell, a ‘feminist take’ (‘My focus is 100% on the female characters’) set in the 1830s (updated from the novel’s early-17th-century setting), the decade in which Donizetti’s opera was first seen in Naples and as Mitchell notes, the decade which was ‘a very important period for feminism with the Brontës and all those amazing women like Mary Anning who were early feminists, fossil-hunters and scientists’.
Mitchell’s Lucia is a frustrated proto-feminist, trapped in an oppressive male world, whose refusal to endure a life of passive self-denial and duty results in her cruel and bloody demise. This is not such a radical reading. The mad-scene has been variously interpreted, sometimes as the beautiful but futile expression of female passivity and entrapment, elsewhere as a convention-breaking proclamation of self-determination.
However, while it’s true that in the 19th century, madness, both ‘real’ and ‘operatic’, was stereotypically a ‘female malady’, I feel that Mitchell goes too far in her assertion of the work’s ‘cultural meaning’. And, in her endeavour to fill in all the ‘gaps’ and provide us with an unambiguous account of ‘what Lucia does while the male characters are singing about her’, she loads the action with extraneous imagined action.
So, as the guests gather to celebrate the nuptial union of the two families, on the other side of the stage we see Lucia and her maid murder Lucia’s husband of just a few minutes. And, they take an awful long time to do so, for he’s a disobliging victim who survives attempted suffocation, prolonged stabbing and a hatchet to the head and ekes out his death-shakes as long as possible - completely distracting one’s attention from the ‘scripted’ plot being presented alongside.
Then, as if murdering one’s husband would not be enough to send one crazy, Mitchell invents a further reason for Lucia’s insanity: a miscarriage - or self-induced abortion? - which causes Lucia to lose enough blood to drown the entire Ashton and Ravenswood clans. It is disconcerting and uncomfortable to watch, but mental breakdown is disturbing too and Donizetti’s depiction of it is sufficient to stir our disquiet.
As for the reported erotic excesses of the production, the characters did seem to be eternally engaged in taking off their clothes, though they exposed little flesh and the nocturnal assignation of Edgardo and Lucia (fully clothed in men’s attire) in the Lammermoor gardens involved an excruciatingly clichéd ‘sex-scene’ of cartoonish gaucheness. Presumably it was more potent than it looked for in the following scene Lucia rushed to the water closet apparently in the throes of morning sickness, which raised a chuckle in the stalls.
Vicky Mortimer’s set divides the ROH stage into two, fairly shallow rooms. Centre-stage is given, literally and figuratively, to a partition wall. Bedchamber is juxtaposed with bathroom, boudoir with billiard room. The eye doesn’t really know where to settle, and as much of the business occurs towards the far edges of the stage, there’s a danger that ‘crucial’ action is missed.
Lucia’s mental wanderings are almost outdone for grimness by an itinerant interloper - the portentous ghost whom Lucia sees of a girl killed by a jealous Ravenswood ancestor - whom Mitchell introduces in almost every scene. And, the set - admittedly detailed and sumptuous, and naturalistically lit by Jon Clark - is small and cluttered. In Act 2, in the billiard room there is almost no room for ROH Chorus to stand, let alone move.
It’s a rare evening when the ROH Orchestra receive a lukewarm reception, but conductor Daniel Oren’s stately tempos and unresponsive, rigid beat didn’t lift the performances from the pit above the work-a-day.
Thank goodness for Castronovo’s terrific performance in the final scene, where despite the visual distraction of Lucia slitting her wrists in the bathtub next door, Castronovo sang with truly affecting tenderness. Despite Mitchell’s assertion that the focus of this production ‘is 100% on the female characters’ it was Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood who stole the show.
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Lucia - Diana Damrau, Enrico Ashton - Ludovic Tézier, Egardo - Charles Castronovo, Normando - Peter Hoare, Alisa - Rachael Lloyd, Raimondo Bidebent - Kwangchul Youn, Arturo Bucklaw - Taylor Stayton; Director - Katie Mitchell, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting Designer - Jon Clark, Movement Director and Associate Director - Joseph Alford, Fight Directors - Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Monday 11th April 2016