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Lucia di Lammermoor

by on 26 October 2018

Dark Fantasies and Morbid Fascination

Lucia di Lammermoor

by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on Sir Walter Scott

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 5th December

Review by Suzanne Frost

Men, nothing but men. Creeping around, peering through windows, observing the girl’s sleep, trespassing into her bedroom. Lucia, the child-bride, the commodity, the goods to be flock to the highest bidder, grieving her recently lost mother and accompanied by a mostly mute governess figure seems to be often the only female in her carefully constrained world.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, one of the most popular works in the opera canon, is a story about family, duty, honour and gender and as such obviously an instrumental item in ENO’s interesting and important season exploring patriarchy. David Alden’s production is a revival, first seen at ENO in 2008 and sent around the world and back three times, but when viewed through the lens of male power structures, Lucia quite evidently slots in nicely this season.

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The Bride of Lammermoor is classic gothic horror story penned by nineteenth century novelist Sir Walter Scott inspired by a real-life tabloid scandal of a Scottish noble woman, Lucy Ashton, forced into a politically motivated marriage, stabbing her bridegroom during their wedding night. These kind of spooky “penny-dreadfuls” became immensely popular in the nineteenth century, so Alden’s choice to set the story in a sort of nondescript Victorian age is genius, an era ripe with oppressed sexuality, dark fantasies and a morbid fascination with (mostly female) insanity. While the demanding, technically virtuoso bel canto part of Lucia is a role written to showcase a real prima donna, Alden and the extremely fragile and slight soprano Sarah Tynan emphasis her innocence and vulnerability. This Lucia is already leered over and sized up for her sexual worth, while still clutching her doll and skipping around. There is something “off” about her, right from the start though, her playfulness and childishness already closer to insanity than innocence, her isolation and emotional distance maybe a symptom of previous trauma. Alden hints at abuse and paedophilia with her despotic brother Enrico tying his sister to her bed using her skipping rope to grope her childlike body and the constant lurking and climbing through windows to enter the space feels intrusive at every stage. Following the libretto though, Enrico has very little actual feelings for his sister and sees her merely as a tool, a means to secure a fortune through a prosperous marriage. God forbid, he would figure out how to make money himself when he has a woman at his disposal to sell. The evil Enrico is sung by Lester Lynch in a powerful baritone accompanied with lots of eye rolling cartoon villain ham acting. Lucia’s passion for Enrico’s arch enemy, the noble but poor Edgardo, seems more like a longing for safeguarding than an actual crush – the man saved her once from danger, that might be enough for such a troubled girl to trigger visions of escaping to a more trustworthy environment. Edgardo’s “love” for Lucia also seems more like kind affection – nobody in their right mind should physically desire this child. Nor should anyone approve her selling off like cattle at the market and under such visible distress. Alden uses effective theatrical tricks to expose society’s complicity in Lucia’s downfall, men holding up brooding portraits of stern looking ancestors to enforce duty and tradition while the women strongly support those structures laying their hands firmly on the shoulders of their partners. Couples toasting the happy occasion of a wedding party, ignoring Lucia sprawled on the dining table like a dead piece of meat. And later for the popular mad scene, as Lucia sings herself to death, society sits motionless, like spectators at the theatre quietly motioning applause. While the theatre metaphor works in the moment, the suffering woman displayed on stage for entertainment, those moments of heightened performativity are scattered few and far in between and feel a bit out of the blue, not coherent with the otherwise largely traditionally played action.

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The stripped down set by Charles Edwards is instrumental in creating a miserable, barren atmosphere of hopelessness, high bare walls and barred up windows evoking the sense of claustrophobia that you might feel in an institution, while effective details such as crumbling wallpaper and a broken sofa bolstered up on books serve as reminders of the financial difficulties the run-down family is faced with. Brigitte Reiffenstuhl’s costume are a sea of monochrome grey, nicely singling out the blood soaked, disturbed bride as a colourful focal point – although I didn’t like the awkwardness of Lucia’s gigantic restricting petticoats, but maybe that is the whole point. Bathed mostly in darkness by lighting designer Adam Silverman, the scenes often evoke still life paintings by old masters and the mostly very static direction of the ensemble helps with this but not necessarily with bringing the story to life. As the single most action-laden scene, the wedding party contrasts effectively with the murder and doom bringing celebration to a sudden end.

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As a regal Calvinistic chaplain and a fur clad pimp respectively, Raimondo (Clive Bailey) and suitor Arturo (Michael Colvin) serve as the other two male stereotypes keeping women in check with their mutually out-cancelling expectations of virtue on one hand and lose morals on the other.

My main problem, and I am ever so sorry for even daring to say this, is with Donizetti. While his music is heartbreakingly beautiful, his lyrical melodies as pretty as can be, it is rarely tragic, never gothic or spooky. His shtick about never ending finales, the sweet florid embellishments and ornamentations turn singers into trilling little birds not dramatic heroes. Add to that the clunky English translation by Amanda Holden and you expose yourself to unintentional humour that more than once triggered grown men to giggle in the stalls. As grim as the story on stage is, as much as Alden amps the creep-factor and Tynan gives us good victim – I felt very little. Tynan is a phenomenal singer, her voice as clear as the glass harmonica Donizetti used for its spooky sound (an instrument itself doused in ghost stories of its apparently deranging effect on players) yet I was never spooked – rather left with a feeling of numb sadness. Lucia di Lammermoor is an example par excellence of a woman used as punch bag and playball between men and I suppose this facet of patriarchy needs to be included this season – but it probably makes for the most uncomfortable viewing.

Suzanne Frost
October 2018

Photography by John Snelling

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