Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, 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.

Lucia and Edgardo, all images ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey

Lucia and Edgardo, all images ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey

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.

Enrico barges in

Enrico barges in

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.

Seduction of Arturo before his murder

Seduction of Arturo before his murder

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.

Wedding scene with ghosts after Edgardo's entrance

Wedding scene with ghosts after Edgardo’s entrance

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.

Suicide in the bath

Suicide in the bath

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.

One Response to “Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2016”

  1. Stephen Watkins says:

    I was at this performance.

    For the most part the characters in Lucia are somewhat cardboard, which is not a problem as it is not a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, but a platform for wonderful singers. This is not a critcism of the opera; no one criticises Zauberflöte because the characters are cardboard, but to invest one character with detail imposed by a director is simply wrong. It is not an opera about a woman who has a miscarriage but that is how it was portrayed. Enough has been said by critics who are not taken in by this fraudulent director. She no doubt will be stimulated to further artistic vandalism. I have a sneaking suspicion though that it will become a hot ticket just because the murder is SO ridiculous. Could become a cult comedy. I am sure this is not what she would want.

    ROH should suspend the production and fill the dates with concert performances. There is nothing wrong with singers or orchestra. The director should be invited to refund her fee and attend a course on the traditions of opera. If she wants to do this sort of thing to the likes of ‘Salome’ maybe it would make sense but Donizetti has enough problem writing in the minor key even in the most angry of exchanges, and piling on the sort of personal paranoid agenda to this opera is simply unacceptable. Without wanting to make too heavy a point, had someone suffered what Lucia suffered on the stage in this production it really could have been too much to bear. If such action was inherent to the opera it would be fair enough to expect people to stay away, but superimposing a ridiculous subplot is unacceptable.

    A final thought, in these days of cuts to the arts I find it inappropriate that the artistic management of the ROH should be using any publicly funded subsidy on something of such dubious artistic merit.

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