Life in Slow Motion: Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House

Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia – Diana Damrau
Edgardo – Charles Castronovo
Enrico – Ludovic Tézier
Raimondo – Youn Kwangchul
Arturo – Taylor Stayton
Alisa – Rachael Lloyd
Normanno – Peter Hoare

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Daniel Oren.
Stage director – Katie Mitchell.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Tuesday, April 19th, 2016.

Shortly before this production opened, visitors were emailed to be aware of ‘sex and violence’ in the staging.  This ‘sex and violence’ turned out to be a little dry humping on stage and Arturo being visibly murdered in an almost cartoon-like manner.  Hardly anything that one wouldn’t see on TV in the early evening, though clearly the Royal Opera wanted to avoid a repeat of the near-riots caused by last summer’s production of Guillaume Tell.

It struck me during the show that Katie Mitchell’s production was actually quite conservative.  It claimed to be a feminist retelling of the story and indeed, in visually presenting the murder with Alisa handing the knife to Lucia, it gave the female characters more agency perhaps than one might normally see.  However, its execution was quite frankly risible and was greeted by laughter from the audience.  This all took place as Edgardo and Enrico confronted each other on the other half of the stage in the Wolf’s Crag scene.  Indeed, the stage was split in two all evening which meant that the singers would appear on one half, while extraneous action would take place on the other, taking attention away from the singers and adding a layer of narrative that hardly added much in the way of insight.  Furthermore, Personenregie was elementary.  While the extraneous action seemed to have been coherently thought through and directed, those singing were far too often left to their own devices to stand and deliver.  For a staging that promised to be innovative and insightful there was a lot of parking involved.

Youn Kwangchul, Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau, Ludovic Tézier, Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Youn Kwangchul, Charles Castronovo, Diana Damrau, Ludovic Tézier, Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

The chorus suffered most, often crammed into the back of a scene, which also affected blend.  The stage itself took up less than half of the proscenium and while it added to the claustrophobic nature of the piece, what it did mean is that spectators at the back and the sides of the theatre had very little view of the action, and with characters frequently singing at the far sides of the stage, they frequently sounded off-stage too.  Mitchell is no stranger to Bow Street and surely she should have realized in advance that her concept would put a significant number of people in the audience at a disadvantage?

Worse, the final scene was compromised by a running bath that did its business along with the music.  It says a lot for Charles Castronovo’s supreme musicianship that he was able to give us some extremely sensitive and highly musical singing while being accompanied by the sound of running water in a different key.  There were some interesting ideas – actors dressed as zombie Lucias showed up on occasion and this highlighted the gothic horror element of the staging without clogging the narrative.  This was particularly striking in the Act 2 finale, where when Edgardo arrives the chorus exclaims ‘qual fragor! Chi giunge?’ and one of Lucia’s zombie doubles appears.  The biggest issue with the staging was Mitchell’s apparent unwillingness to allow her singing-actors to drive the story forward and her apparent need to constantly illustrate the backstory rather than allowing the audience to make its own mind up.  And yet, she did give us an incredibly touching and beautiful final tableau.  As Lucia lies in the bath having killed herself, Edgardo joins her and does the same.  This tender Liebestod was moving, sensitive and affecting.  If only the rest of the staging had found that kind of inner truth to the narrative.

Diana Damrau & Charles Castronovo © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Diana Damrau & Charles Castronovo © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

The last quarter-hour of the show really did make the previous three hours worthwhile.  Tonight Charles Castronovo gave us something very special indeed.  His is a highly glamorous tenor of great beauty.  He gave us some fabulously open and Italianate singing in the Wolf’s Crag scene but also a rapt and ravishing ‘fra poco a me ricovero’ sung with exquisitely long lines, a beautifully spun legato and wonderfully sustained soft singing.  Perhaps, there was a slight sense that he is still working the role into the voice.  Yet Castronovo has that priceless ability to work with his instrument rather than against it and he had clearly mastered all the facets of the part so that he was able to give us such a generous and moving final scene.  His entry in the Act 2 finale, pinging out the high A on ‘maledetta’ with genuine Italianate ardour was really wonderful to hear.  I look forward to seeing Castronovo grow in the role.

Diana Damrau © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Diana Damrau © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Diana Damrau was happiest in the middle of the voice where she got to display her attractive legato and easy phrasing.  She didn’t shirk from the challenges of the role and gave absolutely everything to the part, so much so that I did fear she wouldn’t quite make it to the end.  Her ‘regnava del silenzio’ typified that approach and she added some sensitive embellishments to the subsequent cabaletta.  Unfortunately, the top was pale and effortful and I’m not quite convinced Damrau is the owner of a genuine trill.  She gave us her fair share of acuti and usually landed on the note she was aiming for.  I certainly appreciated her determination and her willingness to give all she had.  Damrau was very warmly received by the audience who gave her a generous ovation at the end.

Ludovic Tézier was an implacable Enrico.  The voice is absolutely huge, powering through the ensembles.  The faster writing revealed quite a few aspirates in the line and the tone lost a little colour at lower dynamics.  I also wished he’d made a bit more of the words.  That said, the sheer size of the voice and its ease of production really are impressive.  Youn Kwangchul offered a voice of great resonance as Raimondo if perhaps somewhat woolly and unsteady of tone.  He certainly dispatched his aria with sensitivity though.  The remaining roles were respectably taken.

Ludovic Tézier & Gentlemen of the Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Ludovic Tézier & Gentlemen of the Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

I’ll say something positive for Daniel Oren’s conducting and that is that he secured unanimity of intonation from the Royal Opera House orchestra strings.  Sadly, his conducting was extremely disappointing reflecting a seeming lack of understanding of the idiom and apparent disrespect for the tempo markings in the score.  For example, in the Act 2 duet between Lucia and Enrico the passage ‘se tradirmi tu potrai’ in the score is marked ‘vivace’ and was taken tonight as ‘adagio molto’.  Indeed, Oren’s tempi were deathly slow sucking all life out of the piece.  Attack was limp and he transformed this vital story of love, life and death into a flaccid dirge.  That his singers, particularly Damrau and Castronovo, were able to cope with tempi this slow is a tribute to their outstanding breath control.  The evening clocked in at 3 hours and 20 minutes with a 35 minute interval and it felt much longer.  The orchestra played better than I have heard them play for a while and while the chorus was compromised by their location on stage, the ladies sounded steadier than usual too.

Despite all of this, I would gladly sit through it again just for those last twenty minutes because we finally got some truly bel canto singing and the staging finally began to cohere.  The rest, I’m afraid, was a disappointment.  A staging that was far too busy and seemed not to trust the work to tell the story was combined with conducting that lacked any kind of rhythmic momentum and understanding of structure.   Fortunately, there was some decent singing and certainly in Castronovo there was a very classy Edgardo.

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2 responses to “Life in Slow Motion: Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House

  1. Very good review, thank you! I really hope they’ll retire this production, I would hate to see Florez in it next season… As much as I love him, I think I would not go.

  2. The problem with Lucia in the bath at the end for the HD audience was that she was very visibly breathing! However we thought her interpretation of the role was exquisite. Her floated top notes had the audience spellbound.
    As to the production, I felt strongly that there were two ghosts too many. Mitchell’s vision was a clumsy mix of Gothic horror and psychological interpretation and the two make uneasy bedfellows.
    I absolutely agree that the lagubrious, unvarying conducting style was a big minus. Oren, rightly in my view, received little applause from the ROH audience in last night’s HD transmission. However, the split stage was the worst aspect of this production, in my opinion. We wanted to watch and hear the singers, not be distracted by all the other business. Donizetti knew what he was doing, and his opera has no need of a director to fill in the gaps.

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