Tonight the Canadian Opera Company opened their new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the dark tale of a bride forced to marry against her will who goes mad on her wedding night, killing her new husband. This is not your usual Lucia.
In the past I’d come with low expectations, preoccupied by the singing as if I were watching American Idol, measuring individuals for their high notes rather than the dramatic credibility. But this time, with director David Alden’s English National Opera Production, conducted by Stephen Lord, and starring Anna Christy & Stephen Costello, my expectations were much higher.
For Act I, the production mostly persuaded me, even if there were troubling elements. Alden has moved the action to a more recent time (instead of the 17th century, we’re in the 19th century). While i resisted the production for awhile, let’s cut to the chase, and conclude that I was blown away on the whole. The last act especially knocked my socks off, giving me much more than just virtuosity, but a deep and probing exploration of the story & its implications.
Christy & Costello both deliver. With Anna Christy, you get a Lucia who looks very young. She could have been Juliet Capulet. Her voice was good, but what you remember is the portrayal, which is understated. An article in the Toronto Star said that Alden had used the film Carrie as a model, which come to think of it makes sense, given that in a real sense, Lucia is the prototype for the horror film. The glory of that mad-scene (both in the film and the opera) is that a person who has been wronged breaks free of constraints, and becomes like an avenging angel, righting the huge wrongs that we’ve seen in the previous scenes.
Christy didn’t really surprise me, given what I’d read, and given that the material is so well written/composed as to be sure-fire, working even when the soprano looks 55 rather than 15. But I’ve never –until now—seen an Edgardo that I really liked. He’s a troubling character, sailing off into the sunset early on, and then suddenly appearing self-righteously five minutes too late, romantic in the ineffectual way that’s classic Walter Scott. While it’s really a team effort –that is both soprano and tenor have to paint a convincing portrait of a couple who can love one another, and of people who deserve love—I feel Costello deserves special credit, making such a likable and charismatic Edgardo. I had been warned privately (an email from someone who saw him in NYC in 2007) that while he sings like a god, his acting is mediocre; that was then, and this is now. Not only is the voice spectacular, but Costello has become quite a good actor.
Thank goodness I have tickets already to see/hear them again!
Yet the man with the hardest job is the nub of my objections to the production, playing an impossible role. Forgive me if I sound conservative, but I can’t help knowing the opera, can’t help hearing what the singers are singing. When a director does as Alden did, changing the story slightly, it’s usually in order to create some important effect with the key protagonists: Lucia and Edgardo. In my experience director’s theatre works in the big moments of the opera, but will have at least a few places where it falls down because either it wasn’t fully thought out or worse, where they got lazy. And the usual nexus for this problem is the baritone role. It happened in a Traviata I saw, where “di Provenza” is sung in the strangest locale, but can’t be cut because it’s a pivot in the plot.
Similarly, tonight I watched the grim brilliance of Brian Mulligan as Enrico. He is the power in this opera even as he struggles to arrange a marriage for his sister to save the family fortune. Enrico blocks the happy ending that should be possible in this story, forcing Lucia to marry the wrong man, forging letters to discredit Edgardo in Lucia’s eyes. In another century he might be the one that gets boos and hisses from the audience. But does he also have to be a pervert who ties up his sister, who jabs his arm under his sister’s dress just as she squeals a high note as if in response? We see him rolling around with Lucia’s doll in her bed, reminding me of Hedley Lamarr as played by Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles (minus the cry of “where’s my froggy”). If you think i am exaggerating see the opera and then tell me that’s not what Enrico resembles [a morning-after addition to explain the similarity; both Hedley and Enrico are infantile and tyannical, capriciously switching back and forth]. And I reiterate, Mulligan was wonderful, managing to not merely do as he was asked, but to be genuinely unavoidable, the centre of everything, regardless of how blatantly absurd the creation that was foisted upon him by the director. This was grace under pressure. In Act II I was laughing out loud as he played with Lucia’s toys in her bedroom.
It seemed to me that the opera was being re-framed as a kind of dark comedy, and by the way there were lots of people laughing throughout this scene, so it wasn’t just me (even if i was the big-mouth who started the laughter).
And then in the next act, I stopped resisting Alden, and then it clicked into place. Nathaniel Peake struts in as Arturo, accompanied by quiet thugs who reminded me of those quiet thugs in Yellow Submarine (except the colour scheme is different; but otherwise they move exactly like the tall “bonkers”: those scary cartoon dudes, except nobody drops any apples on anyone’s head).
When Arturo hands his hat to Enrico as if he were simply a valet? Poof! we get a very new kind of tension that makes wonderful sense. The family dynamics suddenly cohere perfectly, even if I wondered whether we really needed all the madcap antics from Mulligan. So I forgive Alden for that, even as I quietly mutter under my breath that it’s a gratuitous attack on the most macho creature onstage. From the wedding scene onward, everything worked magnificently.
Alden does create some wonderful conceits that take us into a symbolic realm suitable for such a story of myth & consciousness. For me the best of these is the use of a stage within the stage, but I am a complete sucker for self-reflexive devices. When Edgardo arrives he comes as if out of a story-book, arriving from that stage, and exiting too into that stage. It will be the site for Lucia’s mad-scene, undermining all the performativity of the coloratura showpiece we’re watching. And later, when we meet up with Edgardo, how wonderful that it’s as though we’re backstage, where the poor hero has gone to meet his not-so-heroic end.
Stephen Lord was quite magnificent to watch, deliciously flexible with the COC orchestra in following the singers no matter where they wanted to go, one of the most impressive displays of musicianship I have ever seen. And the orchestra were in splendid form, especially the horns.
So this is a Lucia that’s much more than just a virtuoso vehicle, with fabulous singing and where there’s madness running through the whole family. All in all, I’d say it’s way better than I dared expect. You should see it.