Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2016Posted on 8 April 2016
Arrogance. In her first classical opera for the ROH — she produced Written on Skin earlier — controversial theatre director Katie Mitchell treats Donizetti’s masterpiece with too little respect. Predictably enough it was loudly booed.
I didn’t mind the change to the story where the women take control. Lucia seduces Edgardo, becomes pregnant — throwing up from morning sickness — and eventually plays the seductress with her hated new husband Arturo before trying a little light bondage that allows her and her companion Alisa to kill him. As for the famous blood on her costume in the mad scene, that comes not from the murder, largely done by suffocation, but from a miscarriage. A mere modification to the story — we’re used to that these days and it’s not a problem.
What is a problem is that Ms Mitchell has cleverly divided the stage into two halves for all scenes, one half exhibiting off-stage action while the singers occupy the other half. This does not work for opera because the action in one half detracts from the singing in the other. Some people don’t even like the distraction of surtitles. This is infinitely worse. And then there are the two female ghosts who wander around, occasionally embracing Lucia — you soon learn to dread their appearance, which hardly helps the enjoyment of this glorious bel canto opera.
By contrast the singing was wonderful. Diana Damrau as Lucia produced lovely soft notes and fine coloratura, and Charles Castronovo as her lover Edgardo showed a noble bearing and came over with huge strength in the final scene. Ludovic Tézier as her brother Enrico was the real thing, powerful of voice and unpleasantly intrusive as he barges into her bathroom, and later with Peter Hoare’s excellent Normanno as they go through his sister’s personal effects. Fine singing from Taylor Stayton as the wealthy but luckless Arturo, Rachael Lloyd as the ever-present Alisa, and with the terrific bass and steady presence of Kwangchul Youn as the chaplain Raimondo.
The orchestra, complete with glass harmonica, played Donizetti’s music with wonderful sensitivity under the commanding baton of Daniel Oren, only spoiled twice by the sound of running water, notably when Lucia commits suicide in the bathtub. There was no need to complement the orchestra in this way since the tub filled from below rather than via the taps, but this is all part of Ms Mitchell’s apparent oblivion to the fact that many of the audience come to hear the music and singers. There was simply too much going on, excellent though the staging was in terms of sets by Vicki Mortimer and lighting by Jon Clark. With less distraction this otherwise effective staging might have worked. Pity.
The Royal Opera House must learn to avoid over-heavy stagings — William Tell was another — because it is not sex and violence to which the audience object but opera directors trying to be too clever by half. As Diana Damrau herself said at an ROH Insight evening recently, we have had the age of the singer, the age of the conductor, and now we are in the age of the director. It’s time that came to an end, and a little humbleness in the face of great works of art is the first step.
Performances continue on various dates until May 19, with a live cinema relay on April 25 and a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on May 14 — for details click here.