Ah, Bel Canto. Lots of lovely frocks, and even lovelier singing, and hopefully no naughty directorial interference to upset things too much. There’ll be a woman at the heart of the action: if it’s a comedy she’ll end up absconding with her forbidden lover, if not she’ll end up dead. Either way, the drama will know its place and be suitably subservient to the music at all times. Lovely.
I suspect director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer didn’t get the memo, or, if they did, screwed it up and chucked it in the bath. There’s drama from the outset and, mostly, it works a treat. There’s a clear feminist agenda in this new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, but it serves to illuminate Lucia’s character at every turn. It’s not just the drama throwing off the chains of subservience here.
Over the course of the opera, Lucia grieves for her dead mother, is saved by a stranger she then falls in love with, murders the bridegroom forced on her by her brother and subsequently dies. Traditionally we see none of this, all the action is relayed to us by male characters, while Lucia is off-stage. As a result there’s a gaping hole in her character, making her descend into ‘madness’ and which is both melodramatic and puzzling for the audience.
Mitchell and Mortimer’s real stroke of genius is to give us a split stage, so we see Lucia from the outset. We see her grieve, so by the point we meet her in the flesh, she’s a very real woman. We understand that she loves Edgardo, we feel her frustration, her passion and her pain, and we fully understand that the murder, which we see, is perhaps the only choice left to her, made with a clear head and calm certainty. While the score gives us men blustering and fussing over who’s going to kill who, the direction gives us women quietly getting on with it.
We understand how trapped Lucia is – simply because of her gender – and well conveyed through the choice of costume; when she strips off her corset and dresses as a man to meet her lover we see her at her most free, but when she’s laced back into it to receive her unwanted groom, wincing in despair and humiliation as the life is squeezed out of her (and the child we know she’s carrying), we feel just how trapped she is. Suddenly Lucia is a real, complex character, full of love and despair.
It doesn’t all work. At times Mitchell has to apply the dramatic shoehorn to get things to fit, especially in the final scene. But what it affords us is the chance to see Edgardo deliver his final lines to Lucia while she lies dead in an overflowing bath, which packs one hell of a punch. I could have done with a bit less of the ghostly girl; her impact is strong but diluted by frequency. It’s almost as though she’s wheeled on when there’s a gap to fill. Similarly, the botched murder either needs to be far more brutal or over much sooner.
At times, the music becomes subservient to the needs of the drama or, more explicitly, to the director’s agenda. But you can forgive any and all of these things for giving us a drama overflowing with truth and emotional weight. I’ve got this far without even mentioning the cast, which speaks volumes about the production, given how strong the cast is, both dramatically and musically. The quality from the three leads is fabulous throughout. Diana Damrau (Lucia) in particular squeezes every drop of drama from her performance, her acting every bit as fine as her singing. Charles Castronovo (Edgardo) and Ludovic Tezier (Enrico) are also excellent throughout. Rachael Lloyd (Alisa) deserves a particular mention too, a role as much acted as sung in this production.
Not everyone’s going to like it – there was plenty of booing alongside the cheers on opening night – but, make no mistake, this is serious work. If you’re going to make a case for early 19th century opera in the modern age, this is how you make it. So, please, please go and see Lucia di Lammermoor (and I use the word see intentionally). If a gender agenda puts you off, or if you just want your opera sung at you, then don’t – stay at home and listen to it on Radio 3 on May 14.
Maybe not in the bath, though…
Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bow St, London WC2E 9DD, until 19th May 2016. Running time about 2 hours 50 minutes, including one interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.
This production will also be screening live to cinemas on 25th April 2016, click here to find your nearest venue.