Opera Holland Park still fondly remembers the day in 2009 when Dame Joan Sutherland attended a performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux to see her husband Richard Bonynge conduct. She was arguably the greatest Lucia of all time, but following the first night of Olivia Fuchs’ new production I seriously question whether I, who never heard La Stupenda live, will ever witness another performance to match that of Elvira Fatykhova.
Fatykhova’s voice is full of honey-dewed elegance and beauty. It is not only the basic instrument that makes her performance so exceptional, but the way in which alongside her expressive air of fragility, she has mastered every vocal detail. Her sound is beautifully balanced so that it can soar to ethereal heights without ever losing an ounce of its gold. Her performance of ‘Il dolce suono’ is highly measured (partly reflecting the production which does not revel in the gore as much as many), but no less effective or captivating for that. Words cannot do justice to just how spine tingling her output is during the ‘mad scene’, which also makes use of a glass harmonica (played by Philipp-Alexander Marguerre) as Donizetti originally conceived it.
The other standout performance comes from Aldo Di Toro as Edgardo. His strong tenor voice has a clean and expressive expansiveness that make him and Fatykhova a strong vocal partnership. He does not, however, quite match her standard of acting. He is strong in those scenes where he is indulging in his own pain (including the end of Act II when he denounces Lucia), but by the same token he feels too caught up in his own emotions when duetting with Lucia to make us believe wholeheartedly in the chemistry between them.
This difficulty of interaction also applies more widely, and may in part derive from the staging. A large granite block dominates the set, firmly grounding the story in its Scottish roots, and its several fractures might allude to the whole history of the tale by symbolising those in church, state, family and individual pairings. Wire fences lie around hinting at the attempts to cage Lucia, while scattered flowers become a recurring motif. The set, however, is too insubstantial to create a real infrastructure for the drama, but not minimalist enough to allow the characters to dominate uninhibited, with the consequence that emotions become caught uncomfortably between the real and the stylised.
In a week when the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Flotilla was marred by rain, opening night partly fell foul of another element in the form of the wind. Although not consistent throughout the evening, it frequently hurtled through the tented area, affecting balance and audibility as it did so. Rarely did it force the orchestra and singers out of time with each other, but their respective sounds sometimes seemed to come from different planes. This was especially apparent because Lucia, with its scenes that flit between choral exuberance and individual ‘laments’, places particular emphasis upon an intricate blending and contrasting of voices. Despite the difficulties, however, conductor Stuart Stratford kept the orchestra on a tight rein, producing a sound that drove the drama forward, while capturing both the sparkle and darker hues in Donizetti’s enigmatic score. p>Although the remainder of the cast do not quite live up to the standard set by Fatykhova and Di Toro they are generally strong with David Stephenson’s Enrico exhibiting a strong, stern sound and Keel Watson’s Raimando being possessed of a dark, resonant bass instrument. Such is the strength of Fatykhova and Di Toro, however, that Act III feels flawless, possibly because they lead us to ignore any other weaknesses, but mainly because their inspiration raises the standard of everyone else around them. Given the brilliance of this pair, and the fact that this production should improve with subsequent performances, the opener to OHP’s 2012 season could hardly come more highly recommended.