A reception experiment: Lucia last night

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.

Anna Christy  and Brian Mulligan  (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Anna Christy and Brian Mulligan (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

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.

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2 Responses to A reception experiment: Lucia last night

  1. Kate says:

    I went to see Lucia di Lammermoor with my partner. The opera suffered the most from the awful production and terrible direction. This is a shame as there were some decent opera singers and the whole thing could have been quite good had they had benefited from superior direction and a better production. Stephen Costello really shone as Edgardo and really had some brilliant moments. In fact I was stunned by his performance. He made for a likeable Edgardo, so hard to come by. Anna Christy was simply charming, with her graceful, weightless voice and I am sure has a great future ahead of her. The clarity and sweetness of her voice ensured I prefer her to Netrebko any day as Lucia.

    The set looked like it had been made on a economic crisis budget, it was all whites and grey cardboard walls, colourless and cold with no life to it. It did not have any touch of the gothic unless you have a very dull imagination and are colour-blind. One was not transported to Scotland at all. In fact the set looked made the place look more like a warehouse in Milton-Keynes. Apparently the Director was aiming to make hints at a sanatorium but this concept just did not work for me. In fact by doing so he took all the romance and passion out of this opera. He left Scotland and took us to an Oshawa air-hangar.

    He has forgotten that both the original story by Scott and the adapted libretto by Cammarano, are tales of passion. It is the ardent flame of desire of two illicit lovers, Lucia and Edgardo, which juxtaposes against the rigid structures of Victorian society (arranged marriages, patriarchy etc) that should make this story beautiful, touching and layered. The Director could have kept some of the cardboard white stuff but he needed at least to bring in a lush forest scene with the wild woods of Scotland in it because without this there was simply no layering, it was all black and white. This Canadian Director took his antiseptic wipes, sanitising what should have been sexy and drained all the passion out of this tale. This was most noticeable during the love scene which I mention below.

    The whole production was odd. Persistently strange acting made the whole thing even more bizarre. Lucia kneeling for many scenes was fine at first but then her walking along on her knees just looked incredibly uncomfortable and added nothing. Perhaps she was supposed to appear even smaller and doll-sized but given her stature is tiny it was just unnecessary.
    The singers constantly stuck against walls, hardly made use of body language, their space and emotion was barely detectable because of this strait-jacketed behaviour. Even the scene where Enrico should be raging, he barely moved a muscle except to open a cupboard whilst the chorus flung papers around which seemed out of place. Singers where constantly climbing in and out of windows. Every scene had family portraits in it which the opera singers played with in various ways. Is this a Canadian’s view of Victorian Scotland? The director deciding to have the doll-size Lucia, Anna Christy, play with her dolls might have been passable but Enrico playing with dolls and a toy train was just ridiculous and when he rolled the toy train across the stage and smashed it against the wall, several people snickered in what should have been a serious scene. Added to which scenes where the opera singers writhed around on the floor like worms just making it hard for them to sing was out of place. Yes the Director was perhaps making allusions to the Victorian asylum but he got so carried away with that thought there was no room for anything else.

    The scene between Edgardo and Lucia which is supposed to be set outside in romantic Scottish woods by a fountain was ruined again by being set in Lucia’s grey and white cardboard cut out bedroom. Edgardo and Lucia barely touched in and spent most of the scene metres apart in fact it was next to impossible to believe they were lovers. Such a shame as Anna Christy has a beautiful coloratura soprano voice, not powerful, but charmingly delicate and very pure which suited the role to perfection. She is no Natalie Dessay but with time she is still young and I am sure may reach great heights not only note-wise. Again I found her much better than Netrebko in terms of her voice and suitability in the role.

    Edgardo, Stephen Costello, was the strongest opera singer of anyone and outshone the whole cast. He sang splendidly and again it was such a shame that the whole cast was let down by a odd production and bad acting direction.
    Ashton, Brian Mulligan, sang well. He had some great moments. Raimondo and Normanno were below par in my opinion.
    Arturo dressed in a hilarious white suit and decked out to be very fat was comical and bought some laughs although this is not usually prescribed, it finally bought some relief to an otherwise very monochromatic production.
    Lucia’s mad scene was the only scene I could describe as well-contrived in terms of direction, visually-appealing and captivating although sadly perhaps this being the last performance, Christy sang quite well technically but there was not enough passion in her voice. It was hard from listening to her voice to convince oneself that she was going completely insane. However I saw the last show and she seemed tired by the end of it. Luckily large amounts of blood and a blood-spattered Arturo gave us the message. Thank goodness for Christy’s beautiful sweet tones and Costello’s amazing performance which made up for poor costumes, set , direction.

    Overall I would say this Opera was a mixed bundle. A brilliant performance from Stephen Costello. Anna Christy was absolutely charming as Lucia. Brian Mulligan had some wonderful moments as Ashton but what a shame about the poor production and stifled acting.
    I would be happy to watch these opera singers again but in a production fitting for their talent.

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you for validating my observations, concerning my “Natural Experiment” (ie, this production is more likeable to someone who has no prior knowledge of the opera).

      For what it’s worth, this is David Alden’s English National Opera Production, imported, rather than something a Canadian director has created. I think the cold design concept owes something to Edward Gorey’s cartoons, which are pale and lifeless and more “Goth” (the 1990s kids affecting a style, as you see for example in the film Beetlejuice), rather than genuine gothic (tied to the literary period).

      Thanks for your highly enjoyable comments.

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