Lucia di Lammermoor, which opened last night at Washington National Opera, is not your daddy’s Lucia. If you had come to pay homage to Donizetti’s original impulse and bask in its early romanticism, complete with Scottish mists and moors, you were in for a shock.
Director David Alden has examined the work through the theme of the mid-nineteenth century view of mental illness and socio-sexual psychology. It’s both an electrifying and highly disturbing production. The singers threw themselves into the vocal and dramatic demands of both score and directorial vision to make the evening and the story revelatory.
Based on the novel “The Bride of Lammermoor” by Sir Walter Scott, the opera follows the fall of the house of Enrico and Lucia Ashton. Enrico, fallen on hard times, tries to restore the family’s fortunes by bullying his sister Lucia into a forced marriage. She, however, has pledged herself to Edgardo, mortal enemy to Enrico. Lucia, torn between her familial obligations and her heart, abandons romantic hope when Edgardo’s letters are intercepted and she learns of her lover’s alleged faithlessness. Edgardo reappears just as Lucia is wedded to Arturo. He trashes her. She goes mad and dies. Edgardo kills himself.
Director David Alden overcomes several tricky problems inherent in the drama. One is why Enrico, usually an adamant boor, bullies his unwilling sister to sacrifice herself. Another is how to prepare Lucia’s trajectory to madness. Alden solves these issues with some very bold choices. Lucia is portrayed as a young adolescent, dressed in a huge hooped plaid skirt coming to mid-calf. Her pining for Edgardo has all the earmarks of a first crush, suggesting that her psyche has not matured sufficiently to overcome obstacles to her romance.
In this production, we discover brother Enrico’s attentions are not altogether filial for his younger sister. In fact, in one of the night’s most brilliant scenes, we witness Enrico playing with toys in the nursery, then demonstrating an even creepier disturbed mind by tying his sister to the nursery bed and eventually burying his head in her lap. The nature of this family’s pathology is revealed, with its secrets of mental illness and incest. We feel how vulnerable these two children are, sealed in this tomb of a house.
Although the original story was meant to take place in the seventeenth century, this production transposes the opera to the Victorian era, with all its social repressions, to ratchet up the psychological tension. At the top of the show, Set Designer Charles Edwards eschews establishing a pastoral setting, opening instead with a stark bedroom with crumbling, chalky white walls and dingy radiators. Are we meant to think this is Lucia’s nursery or a dismal nineteenth-century mental ward? The resulting ambiguity serves the opera well. Edwards’ set gives further emphasis to the psychological take of the production by having the walls move, closing in at times on the characters.
The equally brilliant lighting design by Adam Silverman emphasizes the shadowy gloom of this doomed house, shooting cold white light at harsh angles that penetrate into its recesses to expose the secrets. The monochromatic costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel support the stage palette, so that the whole opera has the look of German cinematic expressionism.
The creative team made use of a stage within a stage. At first it seems an arty but odd choice, an abandoned theatre perhaps in the ballroom of a crumbling estate. There, Lucia waits for Edgardo, sitting on the edge of the upstage proscenium like a heroine in her own romantic play. It’s only later, as the chorus takes its seats, that one begins to understand that we audience members, like the chorus, are voyeurs, perhaps witnessing a nineteenth-century bedlam performance.
The sense of voyeurism is repeated throughout the show. Alisa watches over Lucia more like an asylum nurse oversees her ward than as comforting confidant. The dark suited Chorus peers through the windows, and then intrudes, flapping in like a murder of crows to get a closer look. Even the wedding scene is drab and funereal. It’s a heartless, staged event with guests having come to gawk.
The leads are outstanding. Sarah Coburn sang the role of Lucia opening night. Her first act aria, “Regnace del Silenzio” (“Enveloped in Silence”), starts out delicately, a child’s fantastical tale. Her Lucia moves from being a frail psyche beset by ghostly tales into a passionate woman in her powerful declaration of love with “He brings light into my life and comfort to my sorrows.” She then jumps off the stage like a little girl, running to get a doll. Coburn completely realizes the child-into-woman crisis of this psychological portrait of Lucia.
In the famous mad scene when Lucia appears in her white nightgown, splattered with the blood of the bridegroom she has killed, she sings, “Suonno.. spargi d’amaro pianto” (“The sweet sound of his voice. . .Spread with bitter tears”). A favorite of sopranos and audience alike, it has also been much parodied, what with its seemingly endless cadenzas and vocalised trills, and held up as what is bad about opera. But because of Coburn’s dramatic and coloratura artistry, the voice trembles, soars, and plunges. She makes clear expressive choices with every phrase, showing, without the usual melodramatic staggering about, that her psyche’s dam has broken and words fail. Coburn brings consummate technique and emotion together in an exquisite fusion.
The kilted Saimir Pirgu as Edgardo is as dashing and passionate as Hollywood’s Wallace in Braveheart and has a rich and wonderful tenor voice that never strains. He colors and shapes his singing beautifully in the Act I duet with Lucia. Lucia’s hero worship for this man who wants to rush to her side and rescue her is most believable. After Lucia’s mad scene, the rest of the opera can get short shrift, but opening night Pirgu held us rapt with a most moving rendition of Edgardo’s final aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero” (“Soon I shall find refuge”).
Michael Chioldi plays Enrico, so unsavory a character it’s hard not to play him as stock villain, but he fills the role with much complexity. In his first aria, one wants to hiss him when aiming his poisonous vindictiveness at his sister in lines like “If she’s been struck by lightning I’d feel less bitter.” Later, in what I called the nursery scene, Chioldi moves electrifyingly between sadism, even sexual perversion, and being a troubled victim. Later, he plunges into horrified remorse as he watches his sister’s mind give way.
One stage direction that did not work for me was at the end with Enrico breaking Edgardo’s neck. Excessive. In fact, the last scene with all the chairs and portraits representing a graveyard, where Lucia’s body is carried in to join the ancestors, seemed a little self-conscious and under-rehearsed.
Jeffrey Gwaltney makes his Washington National Opera debut with this show. He makes Normanno, the plot squeezer who advises Enrico, a clinical Machiavellian manipulator in a chillingly understated performance. Mirco Palazzzi, as the minister Raimondo, sings with a strong rich bass sound and brings emotional depth to the role. Corey Evan Rotz cuts quite a figure when he enters dressed as an Oscar Wilde dandy all in cream, and did well as the unlikely and badly treated groom Arturo. Sarah Mesko as Lucia’s companion has stage presence, even while lurking at the edge of the stage almost throughout the show. The male chorus serves the show well with its dark sound and oppressive power.
Conductor Philippe Auguin makes wonderful music, and the orchestra, once warmed up, did well. I very much liked how Auguin let Coburn shape her mad aria. I was especially delighted that the production returned to the original score, restoring the glass armonica as accompaniment in Lucia’s mad scene. (Its unworldly sound was thought to induce hysteria.) It suitably evoked the voices echoing in Lucia’s head.
The production, originally created by the English National Opera, is a powerful evening and should not be missed.
Lucia di Lammermoor
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano
Directed by David Alden
Produced by Washington National Opera
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes with one intermission