Sunday, 24 April 2016

Divided opinion: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the ROH

When I started this blog, I decided to keep the tone as positive as possible. I don't mean, of course, that I would pretend to like things that I disliked - rather that I would focus solely on performances and recordings that I enjoyed. It's one reason that I tend not to describe my posts as 'reviews' (although I'm quite happy for others to do so, as I'm always honest). Professional critics are paid to see a range of things and give a learned opinion accordingly. I'm a punter: I pay to see what I write about, and I'm still a relative newbie on something of a musical learning curve - so to go back to a phrase I used in Specs's very early days, it's more a way of keeping a 'cultural diary'. I'm infinitely more comfortable trying to explain why something has really fired me up, and turning that into an enthusiastic recommendation - 'spreading the love', shall we say - than I am weighing into something.

By now, you might be asking, "Where on earth is this going?", so forgive the long preamble. It's just that after seeing the new production of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the Royal Opera House, I found myself having such conflicted, even confused reactions to it - far more so than usual - that I knew I'd end up writing about it ... if only to try and sort my thoughts out. It won't be 100% praise, though.

I'm not alone. Reaction to the production has been varied, to say the least. I see a cross-section, I suppose, of critics, comment-makers, experts and enthusiasts across newspaper websites and social media links - and a few people have really loved it. Some others have hated everything about it. What I found even more interesting was that even though there were some extreme responses, various people liked/detested completely different things - to the point where you wondered if they'd been to the same opera. The staging was either interesting/innovative or a complete failure; the singing utterly glorious - or it barely passed muster. There's just one area which seems to broadly unite everyone: I'll come back to it a bit later.

First, a quick canter through the plot, which is 'freely' based on a Walter Scott novel. Scotland. Two families, Ashton and Ravenswood, at historical loggerheads. Lucia, of the former, loves Edgardo, of the latter. (The forenames of the characters are all 'Italianised' in the libretto.) Their cover is blown, and Lucia's brother Enrico determines to put a stop to the relationship, not just because of the feud - he also needs Lucia to make a good marriage to another lord, Arturo, to save the family from ruin.

While Edgardo is away on political business, Enrico and his cronies have been intercepting letters between the pair in an effort to end the romance. Enrico forces Lucia to go through with the wedding. As if that wasn't bad enough, Edgardo returns unexpectedly, just in time to see Lucia's signature on the marriage certificate and he rejects her as well.

The final act of the opera then brings two especially celebrated sequences: the 'Wolf's Crag' duet, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel, followed by Lucia's 'mad scene': now beyond reason, she has murdered Arturo and re-appears, fantasising about life with Edgardo, before collapsing. Enrico's anger turns to remorse. The duel never happens - news of Lucia's death reaches Edgardo, and he takes his life, expecting to reunite with Lucia in heaven.

As I mentioned, I'm enough of a rookie to still be at the stage where I'm seeing most of the operas I go to for the first time, including this one. One thing a critic or amateur expert must surely do automatically (whether they want to or not) is carry into each opera a mental database of previous versions. They would be able to recall 10, 20, 30 Lucias - including their own favourite as a benchmark, or control - against which they measure the current version's worth. Until I gather up a few recordings or chalk up some more productions, this latest one is 'my' Lucia, and my experience - and accordingly, my reaction - will inevitably be different.

To begin with: I found that I really enjoyed the staging - or to be more accurate, the ideas behind the staging. Director Katie Mitchell has a vertical division cutting the stage in half - or strictly speaking, into two parts, as the two halves are unequal. The effect is exactly as if the split-screen technique familiar from the movies is being employed live. (I couldn't help thinking of possibly the most famous use of this in horror cinema: the original 'Carrie', where the closing scenes of destruction are shown from two viewpoints at once. Is it a coincidence that the architect of the havoc is also a youthful manipulated woman in a blood-soaked dress?)

For practical purposes, this means that while the opera 'as we know it' is being sung on one half of the stage, a simultaneous 'silent' scene is generally being played out on the other. (There are a few moments where one half is 'dark'.)

(Production photo copyright to the ROH / Stephen Cummiskey)

KM's feminist interpretation highlights the fact that the opera sidelines its women: most obviously, both Lucia's act of defiance - the murder - and her death are normally off-stage. Also, Lucia's mother is not long dead before the opera opens; and Lucia tells of being spooked by the ghost of an Ashton girl killed by one of the Ravenswoods years earlier.

KM has this play out before our eyes: Lucia, with the help of her maid Alisa, murders Arturo in front of us while Enrico and Edgardo sing the Wolf's Crag duet, and during Edgardo's final soliloquy, Lucia prepares to slit her wrists in the bath. The ghosts of the young girl and the mother are re-animated, silently inserting themselves into Lucia's vision throughout as harbingers of doom: clearly, Lucia is fated to a similar early death as the girl, while the mother's apparation is perhaps more ambiguous. It signifies, one supposes, the part grief might play in Lucia's madness, but I also wondered if KM might be referencing the original novel, where Lady Ashton is the 'villain', attempting to prevent the union in the way Enrico does in the opera (another suppression of a woman's active involvement, however evil) and as such could be an image of pure horror to Lucia.

Other plot enhancements are added to support KM's approach, but because of the 'split-screen', they didn't seem to me to interfere or derail the action of the 'real' opera. For example, this Lucia is without doubt a thinking, acting, independently-minded woman - not just the human commodity she is treated as, and risks lapsing into. In their early, clandestine meeting, Lucia seduces Edgardo - and we see the outcome of this when Lucia endures bouts of morning sickness later on. Then, the stress of the murder brings on a miscarriage. (Some of you may be familiar with production stills, or DVD covers for this opera: the mad scene is so well-known that most Lucias seem to be depicted in white, covered in her groom's blood. The audience know that most of the blood covering this Lucia is her own - horrific and desperately sad at the same time. I also thought Diana Damrau as Lucia played this just right - a beautiful, versatile voice but for a mad scene, somewhat low-key, her character drained of energy: a sense of real poignancy.)

Splitting the stage also invites us to consider male and female 'space', and how one invades the other. Men constantly burst into Lucia's room - and then her bathroom. (People were swift to point out - fairly - that one of the concept's weaknesses is that she would surely have just got a lock for the door.) But Lucia's mad scene has her wandering into the chaps' billiard room, filling it with her literal hysteria, hopeless fantasy and bloody dress like a self-respecting repressed gentleman's worst nightmare. Finally, in a monstrous twist, Edgardo - who normally dies apart from the unseen Lucia - breaks into the house, finds her in the bath and kills himself over her body, uniting them in defiance of the onstage barrier.

In my opinion, bringing fresh viewpoints like this to an opera like this can reap multiple rewards - but where I felt the production was strong, the direction went awry. I think some veterans of the opera were particularly vexed by the idea that people would inevitably be distracted by the action of the murder during one of the most crucial and revered vocal scenes, for example. And they have a point, certainly - not because I think it's impossible to understand two things at once, but because it meant the murder took too long. This may not have been a directorial accident - it could've been a 'Torn Curtain'-style attempt to show how hard it is to polish someone off: Lucia here implicates Alisa because it takes them both to finally subdue Arturo. But the overwrought physicality of it teetered into slapstick, prompting some of the audience to laugh. Again, you could argue this was a deliberate risk because the ensuing miscarriage is then a harsher jolt - but that feels unconvincing. Certainly - deliberately or otherwise - it 'damaged' our appreciation of the men's duet.

On a less psycho-analytical note, there also simply seems to have been some slightly odd decisions for using the space. The chorus were sometimes crammed into enclosed nooks and crannies, and characters had to stand still and remonstrate much of the time because they couldn't 'roam'.

I think it's worth considering a couple of bits of context to this. In addition to applying a feminist reading, I think KM is also showing a strong level of 'aesthetic' consistency. Her previous ROH production of the then-new opera 'Written on Skin' also carved up the stage space between sterile, modern rooms (a view of a heaven populated by analytical angels) and the medieval dwelling of the main characters. I've only seen this on disc (it premiered not long before I started going to the opera seriously) so I can't wait for the forthcoming revival - I really love it. While I've yet to experience the way the space works live, on-screen it's stunning. The verticals seem crucial - the angelic associations; the idea that the protagonists are being watched and infiltrated; even the character Agnès's death - a Tosca-like plummet from the roof-top. So I think the 'Lucia' production design fits into an existing fascination KM must have with dividing up space to give material multiple meanings or viewpoints.

('Written on Skin', also copyright to the ROH / Stephen Cummisky)

However, I also couldn't help thinking of the ROH's recent production of 'Boris Godunov', which split the stage horizontally. This worked for all kinds of reasons - characters on both levels had space to move freely, the upper area took on a hallucinatory 'dream sequence' vibe in comparison to the earthbound action below... and there were no (as far as I know) sightline issues. I got the impression that people at the sides in this 'Lucia' could struggle to get the full picture - literally - whereas up in the Amphitheatre section I had the entire stage in my field of vision. If that's true, it implies that some of the cheaper (that is, worse) seats had a better view - clearly not ideal, even if I'm not personally complaining.

Where something really was lacking, however, was the orchestra - or to be more accurate, the conducting. Daniel Oren is the baton-wielder for 'Lucia' - and I remember him conducting a production of Verdi's 'Un ballo in maschera' at the ROH where the pace was so slow, at least one of the singers was audibly struggling for breath when trying to sustain longer notes. (This issue seems to be where most opinions meet.) Here, I could hear that the orchestra lacked the kind of 'zing' or 'oomph' - the wide dynamic range that you'd get when their boss Antonio Pappano, say, is in charge. I couldn't really detect any noticeable variations in speed or sound, and the music struggled to make itself stand out for its own sake. So the singers had to carry the day, vocally and physically. Charles Castronovo had a great voice, I thought, and made a suitably impassioned Edgardo, almost matched by Ludovic Tézier as Enrico - although the stage action rather seemed to 'overtake' his opportunity to convey his regret. I've already suggested, I think, that the acting honours go to Diana Damrau, who really brought to life this more assured, and perhaps as a result more tragic, Lucia - again, not just vocally, but in her movement - the way her spirit ebbed out of her as the opera went on. (Wags may comment that the conductor was doing just that to the score!)

So - an evening where the staging seemed inventive and meaningful but where the direction failed to place the characters realistically in that universe. Where the voices seemed to work but the underlying music didn't. How could I not write about it? I'm still puzzling over it days later. Mad scenes.

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