If you are off to see Covent Garden’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor expecting to see something controversial or even scandalous, you will be disappointed. The reviews of the opening night mentioned the booing at the sex scenes, the blood and the use of a bath (for sex?). Instead, what you will encounter is a quirky staging that never verges on the gratuitous but more than makes up by some superb singing.
The production made use of a split stage, with the main action taking place on one side – in a crypt, hall or bedroom – while one or two of the cast were shown on the other side. In the opening scene, Enrico Ashton explains to his friends that his family fortunes are in jeopardy. To save them he will marry his sister Lucia to the wealthy Arturo. The chaplain Raimundo reminds him that his sister does not wish to marry and is still mourning their late mother. Enrico’s friend Normanno says that their friends are hunting an unknown intruder. He suggests that Lucia is in love with Enrico’s enemy Edgardo. Enrico swears vengeance on Edgardo.
In scene 2, the action switches to a crypt where Edgardowaits for a tryst with Lucia. He is initially embraced by an actress wearing a blood-stained wedding dress. Her role is non-singing and not specified in the libretto to my knowledge. Presumably the purpose is to remind us of the fate in store for Lucia. She arrives with her maid Alisa, who is supposed to act as look-out but takes every opportunity to spy on the lovers. Edgardo and Lucia swear of their love for each other and exchange rings. During their exchanges Lucia pushes Edgardo on his back, removes some of his clothes and sits astride him. If this is the gratuitous sex scene then some people need to get out more.
Act 2 begins with Lucia rising from her bed and rushing to the bathroom with a hand over her mouth, hinting that morning sickness may be increasing her desperation. She returns to her room, where her brother arrives to urge her to marry Arturo. She tells him that she considers Edgardo her husband. Enrico devastates her with a forged letter suggesting that Edgardo loves someone else. The priest Raimundo blackmails her by urging her to respect her duties to her family and her late mother. ‘The marriage bed awaits you’ taunts Enrico. ‘A tomb awaits me’ retorts Lucia. Nevertheless she agrees to marry Arturo.
During the wedding ceremony, the silent actress with the blood-stained dress again hovers around the action. Lucia initially refuses to sign the marriage contract. The spirit of her mother enters and sits at the end of the table like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, to remind her of her duties. Lucia is forced by Enrico to sign the contract. Edgardo bursts in and is prevented from fighting Enrico and Arturo by being shown the contract. He curses Lucia and tears off his ring.
In Act 3, Lucia is shown welcoming Arturo to her bed-chamber. She embraces him and leads him to the bed where she starts undressing him. She blindfolds him and then smothers him with the help of Alisa. This does not work, so she stabs him to death.
This is followed by Lucia’s famous mad scene. In a heavily blood-stained dress she imagines herself to be on the point of marrying Edgardo. Unhinged by desperation, murder and guilt, she dies. In the last scene Edgardo, who believes she has betrayed him, longs for his own death. Raimondo informs him of Lucia’s death and is unable to prevent him from taking his own life.
So what of the performers? The singing on this evening was superb and none more so than Diana Damrau as Lucia. She acted well, sang gloriously and reached her high notes effortlessly; a memorable portrayal. Charles Castronovo was nearly her equal as Edgardo and there were fine performances from the rest of the cast, including KwangchulYoun as Raimundo and Peter Hoare as Normanno. The conducting though was sluggish and did nothing to heighten excitement.
So is this hot? Well, the story is a bit hackneyed and bel canto is never my favourite style of opera. The staging is a hit and miss but largely succeeds in the expressed aim of explaining Lucia’s madness. The singing though is certainly hot and I would recommend it for that alone.
There are further performances with this cast this evening of 22 and 25 April at the Royal Opera House. There are four further performances in May with a different cast. There are plenty of tickets remaining and 50 lower-priced ones are available to personal callers on the day of the performances.
Photo Courtesy: Royal Opera House