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Reviews

<em>Lucia di Lammermoor</em> at the ROH, Covent Garden
09 Nov 2017

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Lucia di Lammermoor at the ROH, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Rachael Lloyd (Alisa) and Lisette Oropesa (Lucia)

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

There were no pre-show warnings, as in 2016 , that the production contains scenes depicting ‘sexual acts’ and ‘violence’ - it’s hard to think of a nineteenth-century dramma tragico that doesn’t feature sex and violence - but while the dead bodies on the billiard table are still piled high, there seems rather less gore than I had remembered: neither blood vessels nor bathtub overflowed with such gruesome abandon. Lucia and Alisa still show an unhealthy enthusiasm when stabbing and asphyxiating the unsuspecting Arturo who, blindfolded by his apparently compliant new wife, is probably anticipating pillow games of a rather different nature. But, the leg-twitching of Arturo’s death throes was less exorbitantly prolonged, his fairly quick demise avoiding the uncomfortable guffaws prompted by last year’s extravagant expiration.

Vicki Mortimer’s detailed set remains divisive in several senses. Even the programme book synopsis is set out in two separate columns to delineate what is going on stage left and right, as the action unfolds in the public and private domains of the partitioned set, but there is still too much to take in in one visual sweep. There is always a sense that one is missing something, the scribbling of a letter, the fleeting suggestion of a ghostly presence, at the far edges of the production. And, I still found the mimed ‘business’, while visually embodying implied off-stage events, to be distracting. Lucia and Alisa, for example, are perennially preoccupied with changing Lucia’s clothing, whipping off frocks, tugging on trousers, adjusting corsets or hoops, pulling on dressing-gowns. It’s quite a ‘relief’ when Lucia is ‘stripped’ down to her bloodied night-dress, and the costume carousel is over.

The shallow set, its recesses quite dimly lit by Jon Clark, has a tendency to become crowded in the ensembles. The ROH Chorus are once again in tremendous voice, but they can do little more than position themselves like statues - around the graves in the crypt, behind the banqueting table and billiard table. Their Act 3 cry of horror, ‘We are frozen with terror’, prompted the thought that they hadn’t actually moved during the entire opera.

Enrico Maltman and Arturo.jpgChristopher Maltman (Enrico) and Konu Kim (Arturo). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Despite these prevailing misgivings, though, this really was a tremendous performance, the principals offering stunning individual performances and responding to each other with absolute conviction and coherence. As the obsessive, unforgiving and over-bearing Enrico Ashton, Christopher Maltman thundered with dark-toned authority; it was no wonder that Lucia cowered and collapsed in the face of such ruthless intimidation. Occasionally Enrico’s pompous indignation veered dangerously close to ‘cartoon baddie’ territory, but Maltman’s clarion vocal clout was balanced with subtlety and nuance. The clarity of his characterisation also brought the political context neatly to the fore, without the historic grievances between the two Scottish clans ever intruding fussily upon the unfolding personal tragedies; we understood, and perhaps forgave at least in part, the driving rationale behind his domination of his sister and his determination to control her fate. The Wolf Crag confrontation between Enrico and Edgardo bristled and burned with the unresolved conflicts of the past.

Andrew Tortise’s Normanno matched Enrico for vengeful resolve, but Michele Pertusi’s Raimondo was a calmer complement. Pertusi’s Act 2 plea for Lucia to sacrifice herself for the good of her family and for heavenly reward, ‘Al ben de’ tuoi qual vittima’, was beautifully crafted, each phrase carefully measured. Raimondo’s evident sympathy increased our own.

Alisa and Lucia SC .jpg Rachael Lloyd (Alisa) and Lisette Oropesa (Lucia), framed by the ghosts of the murdered girl (Sacha Plaige) and Lucia’s mother (Sarah Northgraves). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

The phantoms of Ravenswoods and Ashtons past seemed to me to be even more omnipresent. The murdered girl inserted herself between the embracing Lucia and Edgardo, in the latter’s family crypt - though this was an improvement on the couple’s cliched carnality in 2016 - and appeared at precisely the same time as Edgardo at the wedding banquet, and the ubiquitous apparitions enhance our impression of Lucia’s derangement and mental distress.

Mitchell has declared her intent to make a ‘real woman’ of Lucia, one whose credible physical suffering prompts rebellious reaction and ultimately mental breakdown. There’s still ambiguity, though, whether the pallor and faintness that Lucia and the other characters draw attention to in Act 1 results from her morning sickness or from her brother’s threats and deceptions. Mitchell and Mortimer update the action to Donizetti’s 1830s, the decade which (she noted in 2016) 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’ - a nascent feminism which is further asserted by Mary Evans’ programme article for this revival. But, Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa was appropriately tentative initially, capturing Lucia’s trepidation as she reflects on the ghostly glimmers which haunt her and the water of the fountain which turns blood-red.

Oropesa’s glinting soprano is fairly light but it grew warmly and expansively as Lucia’s distress deepened, and the crystalline precision and limpidness which I had admired at Glyndebourne this summer were again in notable evidence. As the sometimes cruel Norina in Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, Oropesa was a woman firmly in control of her own destiny but despite Mitchell’s avowal to make Lucia more feisty than faint-hearted, however much she wishes to challenge Enrico’s callousness Lucia’s destiny is undeniably ordained. She can ‘escape’ only into madness. In the ‘mad scene’, Oropesa was utterly broken but, to the soprano’s and Mitchell’s credit, this Lucia’s melodic meltdown was not an abstraction of disembodied madness but the terrible disintegrated of a real woman for whom we, and the stage witnesses, feel terrible sadness. Oropesa’s vocal purity returned Lucia to childlike vulnerability and victimhood.

Edgardo Stephen Cummiskey.jpgCharles Castronovo (Edgardo). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Returning to the role of Edgardo, Charles Castronovo impressed even more than in 2016, his tenor glowing first with ardency and a flawless legato, and then, in the banquet scene, with reproachful anger. His disruption of the wedding banquet was theatrically thrilling, and when he struck Lucia, for her imagined betrayal, it was hard not to flinch.

As Arturo, Konu Kim pushed his tenor a bit hard at the start, but he ironed out the occasional rough edge and gained more urbane control of the phrasing and line. Rachael Lloyd, returning as Alisa, displayed vocal evenness that was an appealing match for Oropesa’s clean sound.

Conductor Michele Mariotti carefully delineated the score’s detail. The woodwind, seated to the far left of the pit, made an eloquent, expressive contribution, and the melodism of the cellos’ and basses’ frequent pizzicato passages was emphasised. The lack of hyperbolic heft in no way diminished the emotional power of the orchestral delineation and commentary.

Castronovo’s ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’ stole the show last time round, but in this revival there was more genuine and tensely affecting feeling between Edgardo and Lucia, and while the romantic throbbing of the final scene was just as electric (and now undisturbed by histrionic wrist-slashing from Lucia), it seemed fitting that Edgardo should rise and rush to her side in her dying moments, so that their last breaths could be taken together.

Lucia di Lammermoor continues on selected dates until 27th November .

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia - Lisette Oropesa, Edgardo - Charles Castronovo, Enrico - Christopher Maltman, Normanno - Andrew Tortise, Arturo - Konu Kim, Alisa - Rachael Lloyd, Raimondo - Michele Pertusi, Enrico’s Servants - Abe Buckoke and Remi Rachuba, Ghost of Murdered Girl - Sacha Plaige, Ghost of Lucia’s Mother - Sarah Northgraves; director - Katie Mitchell, conductor - Michele Mariotti, designer - Vicki Mortimer, lighting designer - Jon Clarke, movement director - Joseph Alford, fight directors - Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, revival dramaturg - Cordelia Lynn, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus director - William Spaulding).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 8th November 2017.

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