I remember from Psych 100 that one of the ways scientists learned about the brain was from what they called natural experiments. In the war, sometimes a man would suffer a catastrophic wound to part of his head, allowing scientists to test hypotheticals that were otherwise unbearable to contemplate in an actual experiment. What happens if you sever the corpus callosum —the nerve pathway connecting the left & right cerebral hemispheres– to see how the person’s brain functions? It’s a disgusting thing to contemplate as an experimental psychologist; but if someone walks into your life who has already suffered this trauma due to a bullet wound (a pre-existing circumstance, making it a natural experiment), why not study the effects?
I had a natural experiment last night at the Four Seasons Centre, watching Lucia di Lammermoor. It was the second time i’d seen the production. I sat beside someone who didn’t know the story but who had seen my review.
I am not necessarily an advocate pro- or con- for textual fidelity, but in the process of my experience last night, I inadvertently was part of an experiment last night. As I was simply a passive observer, i’d like to call it a “natural experiment”, and thankfully nobody was injured in the process.
As I said, the person with whom I sat said they were unfamiliar with the opera. Partly because of time constraints, partly because of a little instinct, I suggested to her that she not bother reading the synopsis. I said enjoy it just as it is in front of you, and don’t worry.
And she loved it.
Then, at the interval I ran into a friend. As we exited, i discovered that my friend shares my misgivings about the production, or at least some of it. Portraits are used as a design element several times to suggest a reverence for ancestors, so much so that Enrico clings to a portrait of his mom through “Cruda funesta smania”.
Here’s a more typical reading of the aria. It’s one of several macho displays from Enrico, a character whose rage is one of the unavoidable elements of this opera: unless you deconstruct his rage into something pathological & ridiculous. In later scenes we watch him play with his sister’s toys, tie her up, and yes, violate her in various ways.
As my friend & I laughed and joked about what we’d seen –a mix of positives and negatives– i sensed the consternation from the other party (who had sat happily beside me up to the interval without any misgivings whatsoever). Afterwards she suggested i was wrong in my review, as she felt the director was spot on.
Let’s put aside the question of my review or indeed of the production itself.
I can’t help concluding that one has a decidedly different experience watching an opera with previous experience or knowledge of the text, than coming to the performance, the surtitles, the music and the mise-en-scene without prejudice. Nevermind which might be better or worse. It seems rather interesting, though, that this little experiment underlines the politics of Regietheater (director’s theatre), the awareness of the opposition between directorial intervention and the text itself.
In passing, I felt much the same as before: that Enrico was caught in a kind of crossfire. The concept was designed for Edgardo & Lucia, not Enrico, who seems to be shoe-horned into the production as an after-thought. There are subtler ways to do what this production did, but to do so requires a slightly different approach to Lucia & Edgardo, and instead of hitting us over the head with Enrico’s obsessions.
The musical treatment was as wonderful as before, but this time i was less than ten feet away from the glass harmonica accompanying Anna Christy in the mad scene, giving me shivers throughout. Christy’s underplayed performance made more sense to me, that she only fully cut loose in the last minute or two. Stephen Costello seemed quite fresh in the last scene, although this time i was ready for the violation of the last moments when Enrico “kills him”. Yes it’s in quotes because it’s a strange moment among many. I wasn’t sure whether Enrico is really there or not, given the various surreal & symbolic moments in the production. I had a funny –perverse– thought afterwards, perhaps an echo of my blithe suggestion to Atom Egoyan on how he should have directed his Salome. What if, after all the gross and nasty imagery, if –in a scene that i understood could be Edgardo’s subjective experience– we were to see something nice? In this version Lucia shows up all bloody in Enrico’s arms (and sorry if that’s a spoiler for any of you). What if instead, we had a mute echo of Lucia’s first scene, when she speaks of the ghost. What if Lucia wanders by Edgardo, as he speaks of seeing her in heaven. OR what if –my mushy romantic heart on my sleeve– you do something like you get at the end of Les Miserables? Why can’t he imagine his angel leading him to heaven? we’ve been in Edmund Gorey goth-hell for 3 hours, why not a minute or two of something nice, even blissful?
Is that too much to ask? Of course it is. I guess i’ll just have to get my own opera company if i want to do something different. That’s another way of saying that i respect what they’re doing & how difficult it all is, no matter whether i agree with it or not.