Artillery Row On Opera

Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House

It’s an amazing paradox that something as tawdry as opera can produce such a pure expression of what it is to be human

You have to admire the resilience of the human spirit. One night, those hedgies, slave-traders, sex-traffickers and vampires who patronise Covent Garden are blubbing their shark-eyes out over the sheer pity and sorrow of Donizetti’s 1835 opera, and the next day — when London should be heaving with Scrooge-style spiritual conversions, as they roam the town looking for Tiny Tims to hug, dispensing good cheer and largesse to one and all — they return instead to their counting-houses and torture-chambers and pick up where they left off yesterday devising refinements of usury, raping the world, finding new ways of perpetuating inhumanity by all means possible. 

She sings, raves, keens and fantasises for all the world’s hard-done-by

I suppose this does raise questions about the efficacy of art and its smug proposal that it is an effective tool for nurturing human sympathy, through the evocation of pity and terror and all that guff. It turns out, au contraire, that Hollywood was right all along, and that the arts — with opera always invoked as the prime example of this — basically only exist for the slithery delight of monsters: Bond villains, Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone, Lex Luthor (and of course in real life Adolf Hitler, Angela Merkel, Michael Gove….). I guess the composer/conductor Pierre Boulez was bugged by something along these lines when he advocated blowing up the world’s opera houses — presumably with their audiences in place.

Lucia is a piece to make your heart weep, poor powerless Lucy Ashton abused, traded, traduced and driven to death by a vile brother and a society where she is merely a honeytrap for dynastic betterment. Katie Mitchell’s 2016 production works hard to make Lucia a bit less of a milksop than Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammarano allow — really expertly filleting Walter Scott’s novel — and here the girl faces her unfortunate trajectory with a good deal of self-possession, but the destination is the same: she loses her mind after eviscerating the unwelcome bridegroom who has been dumped on her, and in opera’s most famous 15 minutes she sings, raves, keens and fantasises for all the world’s hard-done-by.

This show took a bit of flak when it first appeared for the liberties it took with Scott and Donizetti: a clumsy sex scene, the tenor having to bellow his tragic final aria over the racket of running bathwater… the most egregious bits have mostly gone now, and the show is powerful, atmospheric and thoughtful. You don’t need to do much with Donizetti’s brilliantly concentrated, Gothically dark score, but Mitchell is always a bit hyperactive, and here, for the most part, it works rather well.

Our early Victorians prowl about in black coats and hats — Mitchell even has the ladies of the chorus dressed up as men to amplify Lucia’s isolation — in a beautifully observed set of courtyards and interiors (terrific designs by Vicki Mortimer and lampie Jon Clark), including a much-used bathroom with the sort of old-skool fittings people who move from west London to Frome spend gazillions installing. A mausoleum with a morbidly erotic fountain is immeasurably enhanced by actual ghosts drifting wanly about — not nearly as camp as it sounds, it fits perfectly with Lucia’s turbid imagination and the gloomy atmosphere. This is where Lucia trysts with her forbidden love Edgardo — family enemy numero uno — and the humping of old is thankfully replaced with some more bearable unbuttoning of Edgardo’s shirt by the eager Lucia; this gal is no wilting virgin, and Mitchell gives her rather more years and assurance than Scott does.

The staging’s other big feature is its split-screen approach, the sort of thing that always causes trouble with opera nuts who want to attend to the music with undivided attention and don’t like any distracting eye-candy. For the most part, here, it actually works, the “offstage” action an illuminating counterpoint to the legit drama. Sometimes it’s too strong for its own good – the illustration of Lucy’s wedding night, while horrid Enrico is race-reading lurid details of fictitious whoopee to tormented ex, Edgardo, is particularly piquant with its visual details of Lucia’s sexual confidence and bedroom know-how, which must come as a bit of a surprise to the groom. The trouble is that the Edgardo-Enrico scene really is a banger, the gathering-place of all the male rage and hatred in the opera, and the place where it begins to attain the genuine terribilità which sets it apart; you dilute that at your peril.

You see? They can do it when they try

And with the extremely passionate tenor Xabier Anduaga (Edgardo) and admirably unbending Enrico (Artur Rućinski) going at each other like dogs, there is a lot at stake here. Lucia is nothing without musical and vocal substance, and pleasingly, after a slightly shaky orchestral start, this one has it in spades, with conductor Giacomo Sagripanti driving it along with great brooding drama. The solo singing is all very strong, but what strikes you most of all are the duets, where the standard conflicts of Italian Romantic opera erupt in their purest form: desperate love, purest hatred, humans tormenting each other in unbearable ways — and doing it with all the individuality of their personal torments fully audible and visible and distinct. Donizetti gathers all this up into the fulcrum of the Act One finale, the sextet where Edgardo bursts into Lucia’s wedding to Arturo and (not surprisingly) puts a pretty poor construction on events. Boundless, uncontrolled fury, despair, violence — and Edgardo cursing love with a good deal more genuine feeling, musical power and sheer relatability than Wagner’s Alberich manages in Rhinegold.

Lucia is sung by the American Nadine Sierra, and she does it with complete involvement, complete control, and in general (apart from a few fuzzy noises at the top) a really beautiful sound. The mad scene looms over the thing like a stormcloud, of course, but here it’s entirely organic, not the imposed circus routine it can often feel, but coming utterly from inside — and as Donizetti holds back his most heartbreaking music for this, and Edgardo’s final aria, the high-running emotions of the whole piece find their apex, and resolution, at the correct point. 

It’s an amazing paradox that something as generally tawdry as opera can produce such a beautiful and pure expression of what it is to be human. And rare that a show is allowed the proper means, musically and dramatically, to fulfil its destiny. Lucia is the concentrated essence of Romantic opera, with nothing humdrum or clichéd about it, and this show gives it full impact. You see? They can do it when they try.

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