This, inexplicably the English National Opera’s first staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, is a hardworking, professional and generally efficient affair. It is, however, not a particularly moving or thrilling one, David Alden‘s bleak production unable to find the humanity in Donizetti’s popular but difficult score. American soprano Anna Christy makes her company debut as Lucia.
The title role of this opera is complex, the solo soprano music virtuosic and, in the right hands, convincingly painting a psychological portrait of the character. Director Alden dresses Lucia in a child-like, bulbous frock, successfully conveying the character’s pubescent innocence, thus greatening the tragedy of her fall. The idea of innocence is continued: Lucia, in Act I, holds a rag doll to her chest, Enrico throws toys at her in Act II, and Edgardo enters and leaves her sphere magically through a curtained window, as though stepping from a fairytale.
This portrayal limits Christy’s interpretation of Lucia. In the mad scene, the character’s greatest moment of self revelation comes at her moment of greatest suffering. I was here touched by the idea of the corruption of innocence, but not moved by a convincing or fully-explored presentation of character. Having said that, Christy benefits from ravishing good looks and also from a light, easy soprano voice, which can tend to smudge coloratura and sound underpowered, but which extends upwards with little strain. Lower down, resonance is lacking, the cries of “See the phantom” hardly momentous. On Saturday evening, the artist was recovering from bronchitis, her ailment presumably to blame for occasional intonation problems and poor diction, though the latter was possibly a blessing, given how incongruous the libretto’s English translation could sound.
Alden places the action in elegant, moving sets, but sets of white, black and grey, the muted colour palate and use of shadows suggesting corruption and decay, but also tending to nullify the drama: Donizetti’s Italianate musical fireworks find their visual counterpart in dull colours and sturdily-constructed British scenas and costumes. The opera is famously difficult to stage, tending to seem musically superficial and dramatically flimsy, but by injecting it with overpowering monochrome realism, Alden fails to provide a lightness of touch and grace. It does not help that the character direction here is often underwhelming, the crowd scenes potentially messy and the intimate duets often losing their way, overburdened with visual symbolism (Enrico tying Lucia to a chair, for example).
Paul Daniel, the company’s former music director, conducts the run, and presents a powerful aural experience. Big, hard-hitting climaxes and swirling storms of strings and woodwind are pushed to the fore: it’s all highly dramatic. However, the stage action can be swamped, and too many orchestral lines and, indeed, passages lost their way on Saturday, the sextet in particular passing almost unnoticed, greeted by a stony silence from the London audience. At only two moments, I felt, did the stage and pit combine completely effectively. First was the opening of Act I, scene ii, with beautifully smooth orchestral playing matching the simple but arresting image of Lucia sitting wistfully at her window. Second was the opening storm of Act III, the memorable image of Edgardo struggling helplessly against nature matched to the most almighty orchestral crashing and powerful peals of thunder. Because of his actions, Barry Banks‘ well sung Edgardo must enter the realm of natural chaos: it was hard not to think of Lear, or Wotan.
Mark Stone sings Enrico characterfully but does not convey a great enough sense of menace; Clive Bayley (suffering from a chest infection here, and miming) struggles to move past stock operatic gestures; Sarah Pring is superb as Alisa. The whole contains many good things, but left me somewhat cold.