Hamburg Lucia: go big or go home

OperaVision are making Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor available to you for three months. Here’s how they describe it.

Lucia loves Edgardo, the last heir of her family’s enemy clan. They are in danger, but Lucia refuses to betray her love. A ring falls to the floor, the nightmare begins – the nocturnal sky fills with lightning and thunder, madness and blood reign, there is a corpse, then another and yet another.

Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor turns the city into a stage. Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video. They rush to the aid of the main character Lucia, who – like the director – asserts herself as a woman in a man’s world.
Streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:

CAST Lord Enrico Ashton: Christoph Pohl
Lucia: Venera Gimadieva
Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood: Francesco Demuro
Lord Arturo Bucklaw: Beomjin Kim
Raimondo Bidebent: Alexander Roslavets
Alisa: Katja Pieweck
Normanno: Daniel Kluge
Chorus: Chorus of Staatsoper Hamburg
Orchestra: Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Giampaolo Bisanti
Director: Amélie Niermeyer
Set Designer: Christian Schmidt
Costume Designer: Kirsten Dephoff
Lighting Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Choreographer: Dustin Klein
Chorus Master: Christian Günther
Dramaturg: Rainer Karlitschek
Video Director: Jan Speckenbach
Photo (thumbnail) by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Lucia makes for an interesting study of the whole adaptation question. The work is well-nigh indestructible given that the virtuoso set pieces it’s best known for, the sextet and the Mad Scene, can work either as static display pieces (where the singer shows off), or as moments where the characters seem to be breaking down, emotionally distraught and therefore entitled to an out of tune squawk here or there.

For the Hamburg production directed by Amélie Niermeyer we’re in the realm of Regietheater, “Director’s theatre”, which means that the original work is modified in places, drifting away from the original while aiming at something socially contemporary, relevant. In the surtitles I saw phrases inserted that Donizetti never set to music. That will concern the purists, rather than those seeking to reform opera, a medium closely associated with the authoritarian regimes and the rich. The biggest intervention made by the director (mentioned in the summary above) is the filmed dancers overlaid via video, an electrifying & ironic effect simultaneous to the live singing & movements by chorus & personages.

The opera as written in Italian tells a romantic Scottish tale via the bel canto style, which already requires a sizeable suspension of disbelief. At the height of the drama everything freezes for the most famous music of the opera, as six people ruminate upon the situation, frozen by the stylistic convention as they elaborate upon their feelings in that moment. “Chi mi frena in tal momento” does not disguise the absurdity of the convention, putting it front & centre. The fact that our Edgardo must now hold a pistol is particularly absurd, but perhaps no crazier than what opera fans routinely are expected to swallow & believe at such moments.

This is one of the most rewarding Lucias I’ve seen. In a tasteful conservative staging as written: I’d be sitting back waiting for the moments of display, hoping that they’re sung well, with some drama beyond “do they hit the high note”, while trying to stay awake. The Directors Theatre approach may be more exciting, but always leaves me a bit frustrated given that some character or other is left out of the mix for one reason or another, sacrificed on the altar of artistic expediency. For example in the David Alden Lucia seen in Toronto in the past decade the concept mostly worked with the two principals while leaving Lucia’s brother Enrico struggling to make sense of a half-baked concept. With Niermeyer’s feminist reading she almost manages to bring the entire thing into the 21st century. But her concept is problematic as far as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, and its understanding of romance. While I can totally buy into this idea of Lucia as a modern incarnation of an eternal sacrificial ritual, her lover isn’t just another rapist, indeed in some ways he could be seen as a victim of this culture, his final scene the feminine mirror image to the aggressiveness Lucia shows in her Mad Scene. The pleasures are more mental than visceral, a production appealing to me as scholar while deconstructing or negating the romantic side.

This production is often illuminating. The set exposes multiple spaces where, for example, we see Lucia actually killing Arturo, “offstage” from the others who are singing at that moment.

Set by Christin Schmidt, costumes by Kirsten Dephoff (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

There are moments of pure magic, admittedly observed after my first viewing, when I’m not sure I fully understood the subtexts & the implications. There are young children who appear who might signify Lucia & her brother Enrico, while also suggesting Lucia & her lover Edgardo. The ambiguity of the image is surprisingly attractive. It works, at times very beautiful.

As far as the theatrical side of the equation goes, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia opposite Francesco Demuro as Edgardo make a believable pair of lovers. If you’re one of those more conservative viewers who dislike Regietheater while wishing to close your eyes and listen to the singing, the leads are visually attractive, but in the words of American Idol’s old judge Randy Jackson, they’re both “pitchy”, which is my euphemism to avoid harsh language. Gimadieva is often quite lovely sounding, Demuro has some stirring high notes, but the secondary roles sound better. I was shocked that Beomjin Kim as Arturo (the man who marries Lucia, aka lamb led to the slaughter) was substantially better sounding than Edgardo even though it’s a small role, impeccably sung. Christoph Pohl as Enrico showed off a wonderful baritone, even as he gave us an original take on Lucia’s brother. Alexander Roslavets’s Raimondo had the most beautiful singing of the night. Another way to understand (or rationalize) is simply that the lovers are the heart of the drama, in rebellion against the staid society portrayed so stolidly by the others. Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti gets a fluid & transparent sound from the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg & the chorus.

“Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video” (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

I wonder, though. Could this same concept –where we see the ghostly images of the dancers from the street protest—not have been enormously powerful using costuming & sets placing the action exactly where the score had asked? I think the modern texts inserted by the director would have been that much more jarring coming from a conventionally-attired Lucia. We didn’t need the pistol. But nevermind my misgivings, the production works if you meet it on its own terms, without taking meek halfway measures. Boldness is key.

Niermeyer brings Lucia much closer to the ideal than any I’ve yet seen. This is an ambitious reading daring to re-frame Lucia as an important archetype with whom we must reckon. enlarging the scope of the opera.

See for yourself. We were told it is
“streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:”

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