Although the bel canto repertoire has never been well represented in English National Opera's repertoire, it comes as something of a surprise that the company has not until now performed Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's most familiar serious opera.
This new production of the piece, then, is something of a landmark event, and it was certainly greeted with ecstatic applause by a capacity audience. But was it worth the wait?
On the whole, the answer is yes, even if all was not quite perfect. Director David Alden provides us with an experience that is typical of many of his productions: fleetingly insightful and highly frustrating. In some aspects the production is traditional, most of it being set and costumed in the nineteenth century, a paternalistic period also referenced by the photographs of male ancestors which dominate the stage before the opera has even begun. Crumbling walls indicate the decrepit Ravenswood Castle in the opening scene, and the encounter between Enrico and Lucia in Act II is brilliantly and disturbingly staged with the paraphernalia of a nursery, so that we can see Lucia (whom Enrico ties to the bedposts) as a child bride being suffocated by her brother's desperate financial ambitions (and, in Alden's interpretation, serious psychotic, sadomasochistic, incestuous and possibly paedophilic tendencies).
One of the main sets involves a wall into which is cut a false proscenium, complete with its own curtain. This becomes the 'stage' for several of Lucia's set pieces, including the duet with Edgardo, and she mounts it to embrace the bloodied body of Arturo, the husband she has just murdered, at the end of the Mad Scene. For the opera's final scene in the graveyard, the production abruptly takes on a postmodern self-consciousness: the mini 'theatre' set is revolved so that we can see its bare workings behind the scenes. The male chorus is seated on rows of chairs, as are the dead Lucia and most of the other characters, and the photographs in frames which have dominated every scene are laid around the stage to represent the gravestones. That said, Alden used the false proscenium idea in his production of Handel's Ariodante to represent the conscious artifice of Handel's da capo arias and seems merely to want to say the same about the formal aria conventions of bel canto, so I had mixed feelings about the repetition here.
The one truly ingenious moment is during the Mad Scene when a mock glass harmonica is present on the stage to mirror the one playing its eerie music in the pit: the once-popular instrument (for which Mozart and Gluck wrote pieces) became associated with causing delirium in the early nineteenth century and fell out of favour partly as a result of this, so it is appropriate that Alden has made this aspect of Lucia's musical semiotics visual as well as aural.
However, my honest reaction to much of the production was one of utter dislike. Why do most of the characters enter and exit by climbing through the windows? Perhaps we're meant to understand them as trespassing on property that doesn't belong to them, but the idea wears off and it is unnecessarily comic to watch the poor opera singers scrambling in and out all the time. For me, Adam Silverman's lighting is too cold, dim and stark, in complete contradiction to the music. Donizetti was just as capable of employing the chiaroscuro technique (using lightness to make darkness more intense) as Verdi, so I don't see why the relatively happy first-act love duet between Lucia and Edgardo should be cast in shadows, nor do I understand why the wedding revellers are wearing black and dancing in darkness in Act III. The whole point in the latter scene in particular is that Raimondo bursts into a room of joyfulness and announces that Lucia has gone mad, whereupon she arrives and delivers her haunting set piece. In Alden's production, there was too much homogeneity.
I'm also not sure that the issue of madness is balanced convincingly: Lucia seems rather placid, unemotional and is not remotely histrionic, whilst Enrico is so obviously in need of institutionalisation that it is difficult to believe that he is capable of masterminding his plot, however flawed it may be. On the whole I found it a refreshing change to have a restrained Lucia, but making Enrico quite so troubled seemed to me an overcompensation for her Alice in Wonderland type of purity. And other bizarre tricks, such as Enrico's violent removal of the boards covering the windows at the end of one scene and the same character's breaking of Edgardo's neck after his (here unsuccessful?) suicide at the very end, are now so familiar in this director's (and others') productions that they have become irritating clichés.
The musical performance was also mixed. Anna Christy was a fascinating, unconventional Lucia. Despite an announcement at the beginning that she had been suffering from bronchitis during the week and had not sung the dress rehearsal, all the notes were there and the coloratura was breathtakingly secure, not least in the mesmerising and poised Mad Scene. The voice was underpowered in many scenes and some will feel that a more theatrical manner and a greater sense of passion are necessary to bring Lucia to life, but on the whole I prefer Christy's controlled restraint to Natalie Dessay's over-the-top interpretation of this role.
For me, the star was undoubtedly Barry Banks, a peerless Edgardo. His aria was the highlight of the evening. It's wonderful to hear a genuinely flexible bel canto voice in this role rather than a heavier tenor more used to the verismo, but Banks also adds dramatic weight to his vocal agility. Combined with the clearest diction of any singer onstage, these qualities were the perfect reminder (if one were needed) that Banks is one of this country's greatest and most unappreciated operatic talents. Review our interview with Anna Christy and Barry Banks about this new production here.
Though I've admired him elsewhere I was rather disappointed with the Enrico of Mark Stone, who seemed vocally overstretched in spite of huge commitment throughout. He tended to push too much and lose the classical purity of the line, inevitably more of a problem in the lyric passages than the dramatic scenes. On the other hand, he coped well with the unusual portrayal of his character forced on him by the director, and the big duet with Lucia was hugely sinister.
The last time I saw Clive Bayley on a London stage, he was singing Hunding from the side at the Royal Opera House during a performance of Die Walküre when Stephen Milling had lost his voice and needed a substitute. This time, the tables had turned and Bayley was forced to act while Paul Whelan sang the part. Inevitably the dramatic impact was lost, but Whelan – who sings the part in his own right on 6 and 8 March – sang with brilliant firmness of tone and a sense of text. ENO Young Artist Dwayne Jones proved to be an unexpected highlight as Arturo, with strong projection, secure intonation and stylish delivery; on 6 and 8 March, he takes over from Banks as Edgardo and promises to be every bit as satisfying. Sarah Pring was also very fine vocally as Alisa, a mysterious presence on the stage in the latter scenes courtesy of another of Alden's eccentric inventions.
Because of numerous problems with the text, Lucia di Lammermoor has long attracted the attention of scholars. Massive liberties were taken with the score during the nineteenth century and the common performing edition that was popular until recently is in fact a product more of early-twentieth-century performance traditions than the opera written by Donizetti in the 1830s. About ten years ago, Sir Charles Mackerras recorded an attempted reconstruction of the 1835 original score, but the piece has now taken its place in the complete Donizetti Edition (rigorously edited by Roger Parker and Gabriele Dotto), which is the text used for ENO's production. As per the composer's initial intentions, the glass harmonica is used instead of a flute, and the original higher keys are now reinstituted (though Mackerras used this higher version in his recording).
But despite all this solid musical groundwork, Paul Daniel's reading of the score was far from electrifying. Much of it was loud and quite often drowned out the singers; and the interpretation was odd, with abrupt gear changes, excessive tempo choices and wind-heavy orchestral balance that neglected the classical simplicity of the string writing. That said, Daniel was attentive to the singers, in particular when Whelan took over unexpectedly after Bayley had sung Raimondo's part in the opening scene, and there were only a few isolated places where stage and pit were not synchronised.
A mishmash of enjoyment and disappointment, then, for ENO's first Lucia, but it's well worth catching one of the remaining performances to encounter its many pleasures.
Review our interview with Anna Christy and Barry Banks about this new production of Lucia di Lammermoor here.