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Performances

26 Oct 2018

David Alden's fine Lucia returns to ENO

The burden of the past, and the duty to ensure its survival in the present and future, exercise a violent grip on the male protagonists in David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for English National Opera, with dangerous and disturbing consequences.

Lucia di Lammermoor, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Tynan (Lucia), Michael Colvin (Arturo)

Photo credit: John Snelling

 

Historic conflicts and losses loom in the form of sepia ancestral portraits which glare impenetrably and accusingly from the crumbling walls of Ravenswood Castle, complemented by the prurient faces of the hypocritical observers who peer through the gaping windows at the familial abuse within. Lucia, too, is trapped in the past of her own childhood: a fragile, whimsical doll-woman, she is infantilised by her incestuous and paederastic brother, Enrico, while her own retreats into juvenile fantasy and memory cannot save her from the sadistic, even psychotic, adults who manipulate and manhandle her.

 

Lynch and Chorus.jpgLester Lynch (Enrico) and ENO Chorus. Photo credit: John Snelling.

Alden has moved the action to the mid-nineteenth century, and designer Charles Edwards’ dilapidated mansion resembles a decaying boarding school worthy of the bleakest Victorian novel: dark, damp and decrepit, with Lucia the lone sleeper in the chilly dormitory at the start of Act 1. Indeed, the opening image brought Jane Eyre’s experiences at Lowood School to mind - Enrico would certainly give Mr Brocklehurst a run for his money in the cruelty stakes - and this wasn’t the only literary comparison that seemed pertinent during the performance. This Lucia is an ‘inmate’, imprisoned in a mental asylum, and the insane are her jailors. When Enrico ties her to her bed with a skipping rope in their Act 2 confrontation, I was put in mind of the “atrocious” former nursery at the top of the house, with its barred windows, nailed down bedstead, iron rings in the walls, and peeling wallpaper - “repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow” - in which the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper finds herself similarly imprisoned by her oppressive husband.

Tynan and Lynch.jpgLester Lynch (Enrico) and Sarah Tynan (Lucia). Photo credit: John Snelling.

When Lucia, teetering on the edge of mental crisis from the first, succumbs absolutely to insanity, her mad display seems to provide the observing crowd with delectation and delight. Her bloody self-destruction doesn’t seem so much an ‘escape’ through a madness that evades the understanding and structures of her oppressors, but more a submission to an unavoidable destiny. Dressed like a doll, she resembles Carroll’s Alice - an image strengthened when Arturo arrives, posing elegantly in a pristine suit, and looking rather like the White Rabbit. But, her only comfort, a fluffy toy, is brutally torn apart by her brother; and, unlike Alice, Lucia will find no wonderland through Ravenswood’s looking-glasses or wardrobes - just fusty piles of ancestral documents. This child-woman has been assaulted by Enrico, manipulated by Raimondo, rejected by the deceived Edgardo, defiled by Arturo (one presumes); the last drop of her innocence is destroyed when she is forced to watch Edgardo’s demise.

Alden sustains the trope of the gaze which objectifies - Lucia is after all the ultimate commodity, her body the material means by which Enrico will pay off the family debts, her sacrifice designed to ensure the survival of the house and family name - through imagery of the theatre and performance. We first see Lucia seated at the foot of a curtained proscenium and, when the curtain is drawn back, her confrontations - romantic and deadly - will take place upon its stage. At the close, the theatre swivels and we are taken behind the scenes, unavoidably complicit in the gaze of the male chorus who sit in the on-stage audience ranks, alongside the dead Lucia, surrounded by the framed photographs which have now become gravestones.

Edgardo and Lucia.jpg Eleazar Rodríguez (Edgardo) and Sarah Tynan (Lucia). Photo credit: John Snelling.

The ENO Chorus were in splendid voice, and Alden’s blocking (revival movement director, Maxine Braham) emphasised the rigidity of the social manacles which enchain Lucia. Lined up in dour grey, with sour scowls, their condemnatory weight was crushing. It was hard though to imagine such a joyless crowd engaging in revelry after the wedding of Lucia and Arturo, and, indeed, Alden and lighting designer Adam Silverman (revival lighting director, Andrew Cutbush) keep the party shrouded in shadows which means that Raimondo’s arrival with the news of Arturo’s death and Lucia’s demise doesn’t make such a strong dramatic impact as it would were the entertainments colourfully contrasted with the behind-scenes tragedy.

American tenor Lester Lynch was an imposing Enrico: self-righteous, solipsistic and frighteningly sadistic - a huge presence and a resounding voice, with clear diction. Lynch and Clive Bayley’s malicious, manipulative Raimondo were a deeply disturbing double-act, Bayley emphasising the cruelty of the pastor through his aggressive demeanour and thunderous delivery.

Clive Bayley.jpgClive Bayley (Raimondo). Photo credit: John Snelling.

I found Eleazar Rodríguez’s heroic assaults on Edgardo’s soaring phrases in Act 1 a little too hefty, but he found a true bel canto flexibility subsequently, making a gleaming contribution to the Sextet, and convincingly conveying Edgardo’s anger and hurt in the face of Lucia’s supposed betrayal. Michael Colvin’s lighter tenor offered a pleasing contrast, and he displayed lovely colour and vocal grace as Arturo. The role was a better fit for Colvin than his recent essay as Herod in Adena Jacobs’ Salome and it felt a pity that Alden doesn’t foreground Arturo more. Alisa is also often pushed into the shadows, though Sarah Pring gave a fine performance, vocally and dramatically; to extend the Jane Eyre parallel, she reminded me of Grace Poole, a figure of mystery residing in the half-light and hinterland.

Act 3 Lucia.jpg Sarah Tynan (Lucia). Photo credit: John Snelling.

Sarah Tynan, making her role debut in the title role, was in a class of her own. Her light soprano conjured a delicate Lucia, fey and vulnerable; her voice stayed relaxed even as it climbed and her coloratura - she omitted the cadenza in the mad scene - was not decorative but truly expressive of Lucia’s battered and suffering soul - beautifully phrased, controlled, spacious, the dreamy wistfulness enhanced by the glass harmonica.

Conductor Stuart Stratford led a superb performance by the ENO Orchestra: stark swipes of instrumental colour never over-powered the singers, the pace was dramatic but not precipitous, the tension sustained.

Alden’s 2008 production , reprised once before in 2010 was ENO’s first staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. It was, and is, a terrific addition to the company’s repertoire, especially when in the hands of such a splendid team of singers and musicians.

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia - Sarah Tynan, Enrico - Lester Lynch, Edgardo - Eleazar Rodríguez, Arturo - Michael Colvin, Raimondo - Clive Bayley, Alisa - Sarah Pring, Normanno - Elgan Llŷr Thomas; Director - David Alden, Conductor - Stuart Stratford, Set designer - Charles Edwards, Costume designer - Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Lighting designer - Adam Silverman, Revival lighting designer - Andrew Cutbush, Movement director - Claire Glaskin, Revival movement director - Maxine Braham, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Thursday 25th October 2018.

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