DONIZETTI Lucia di Lammermoor (Oren)
‘I have a very strong feminist agenda. My focus for this opera is 100 per cent on the female characters.’ So proclaimed director Katie Mitchell before the opening of her Royal Opera staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. And she did turn the spotlight firmly on Lucia – and her trusty handmaid, Alisa – who don’t get a moment of respite, on stage all evening. But how? There are scenes in which Lucia simply doesn’t appear.
Mitchell’s ‘Victorian Gothic’ setting features her favourite device of a ‘split screen’, so that even when Lucia isn’t singing, we can watch what she’s up to. This is at its most controversial/distracting when, during the Wolf’s Crag showdown between Lucia’s brother (Enrico) and her lover (Edgardo), we watch Lucia brutally murder her unfortunate bridegroom (the hapless Arturo) on their wedding night. Arturo refuses to go gently into that good night; a bungled stabbing, a spot of strangulation and a knife in the back finally finish him off, but not before the audience on opening night were guffawing with laughter. Quite what the tenor and baritone felt about their duet being upstaged in this way is open to conjecture. However, Mitchell redeems herself with a dramatic twist. It’s not the murder that launches Lucia into her famous Mad Scene but her traumatic response to the miscarriage that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the murder.
In the opera house, the split stage was frequently annoying. On screen it works slightly better, with video director Margaret Williams cutting between shots like a television drama. It also allows her to filter out the sound of the constantly running water in the final scene – where Lucia clambers into a bath and slits her wrists – which had many audience members urgently crossing their legs throughout the final act. We are left, however, with other questionable directorial decisions, including Lucia and Edgardo’s graveside rendezvous in Act 1 which would be a prime candidate for a Bad Sex award – should the International Opera Awards care to add this category – with Diana Damrau straddling the topless Charles Castronovo, bouncing up and down to the rhythm of their duet. It’s risible stuff and all the more frustrating when Mitchell gets so much right later in the opera.
As you can tell, this is a production that divides opinion. What’s not in doubt is the quality of the dramatic performance Mitchell draws from Diana Damrau, who is compelling in the title-role. Vocally, I have reservations. Damrau’s soprano is now quite blanched at the top and her cabalettas are mannered and frequently taken far too slowly. Her coloratura is finely controlled, though, with a mesmeric Mad Scene in which each movement is choreographed exactly to a particular ornament.
Charles Castronovo is a decent Edgardo, if a touch plain vocally, but Ludovic Tézier stands out, his firm baritone and smooth legato making him a splendid Enrico. Daniel Oren is a liability in the pit, with sluggish tempos, sometimes grinding the action to a near halt. One of the brief DVD extras is a feature on the glass harmonica, employed in the Mad Scene.