Temporal Imagination: Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia – Rita Marques
Edgardo – Luís Gomes
Enrico – Gezim Myshketa
Raimondo – Fabrizio Beggi
Arturo – Marco Alves Dos Santos
Alisa – Patrícia Quinta
Normanno – Sérgio Martins

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Antonio Pirolli.
Stage director
Alfonso Romero Mora.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, March 3rd, 2023.

Tonight marked the premiere of this new staging of Lucia di Lammermoor by Alfonso Romero Mora, at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.  It also marked the role debut of the lovely young Portuguese soprano, Rita Marques, a fabulous Adina here last year, who stepped into the title role on less than a week’s notice.  She headed a cast made up of local singers together with guests from Albania and Italy, all under the direction of house music director, Antonio Pirolli.

Romero’s staging starts with an interesting premise: he juxtaposes the action of the opera with the plight of a modern-day girl suffering from abuse at the hands of her family, living in a slum that could be on the edge of Naples, who finds solace in reading the story of Lucia.  After all, this is a story of thwarted romance and forced marriage, so the idea of it being an allegory of the suffering of women forced to be sex slaves is not too far-fetched.  And yet, where Romero’s staging falls down is in the execution.  We see the girl, in modern dress, interacting with characters from the opera wearing traditional costumes.  So far, so logical.  As the evening progresses, the characters from the opera gradually themselves dress in modern costumes.  I’m still trying to fathom why, as indeed am I still trying to fathom why the chorus in traditional costumes showed up at the start with electrical torches, or showed up to the wedding ceremony all brandishing knives. 

Photo: © TNSC / António Pedro Ferreira

Romero doesn’t hold back from showing the violence against the girl – what we see is extremely graphic and abusive.  Yes, it does give us a motivation for her to shoot her abusers, just as Lucia kills Arturo; but, and perhaps this is as a result of my North American background, I was really surprised that the theatre would present such graphic scenes without warning spectators what they were about to witness.  It may well have been extremely distressing to anyone in the audience who were themselves survivors of sexual violence.  There was a dramaturgical point to the violence, but I do feel that the audience should have been given advance warning it was going to happen.

Photo: © TNSC / António Pedro Ferreira

It struck me also that Romero seemed to show a poor understanding of how to work with singers.  For instance, in his placement of singers on stage, often he would put those with lighter voices at the back, which meant that there were moments when they were lost in the texture.  This wasn’t helped by Ricardo Sánchez Cuerda’s sets that seemed not to help with projection in that respect.  Romero had Marques’ Lucia sing most of her mad scene from a car in the middle of the stage, with Marques’ face projected on a screen and watched by the chorus on individual smartphones.  Not only was she seated, making her achievement in sustaining such ravishing phrases so remarkable, but here also the acoustic didn’t help.  Similarly, Luís Gomes’ Edgardo had to sing his final number from a reclined position on the floor.  Again, this would not have helped his vocal production and it’s a testament to his artistry he was able to sustain it so well.  After Marques capped her ‘spargi d’amaro pianto’ with a terrific high E-flat, rather than let her enjoy the well-deserved and generous ovation, and us a reflection on the scene, Romero instantly broke the spell with the sound of a car crash.  The sight of a crashed car with the girl hanging off it, waving her arm in the air while Gomes’ Edgardo sang his final scene, was unintentionally risible – and the two men in front of me couldn’t stop laughing at it.

Musically, things were a lot more positive, but there was one big reservation and that was Gezim Myshketa’s Enrico.  His is a medium-weight rather narrow baritone.  When he sang quietly, it was not disagreeable and he showed evidence of solid musical instincts.  Sadly, when he sang at full volume, the sound was forced and pushed, the tone dry, and the line aspirated.  He also took a few higher options which were regrettable, the sound up there lacking in resonance and strained.  Again, when he pulled back it was more than decent.

Photo: © TNSC / António Pedro Ferreira

Marques gave us a sensational role debut.  She started a little tentatively, but as she launched into ‘regnava nel silenzio’ Marques demonstrated that she has all the bel canto tools at her disposal – a voice that turns the corners with ease, a real trill, an easy top, and an implicit understanding of the idiom.  As I said of her Adina, the voice has an agreeable fizz of fast vibrato, just like a vinho verde, and she’s a natural actress.  Indeed, she fully entered into the spirit of Romero’s staging, acting with a seemingly tentative grasp of sanity into the camera from the car.  Marques also floated some ravishing high pianissimo phrases – it’s just a shame that Romero had her sing those from the back of the stage.  Tonight must have been an evening of exceptionally high pressure for Marques given the circumstances, but she most definitely rose to the occasion.  Without doubt a singer to watch.

Photo: © TNSC / António Pedro Ferreira

Luís Gomes gave us a similarly superbly sung Edgardo.  His tenor abounds in sunny, Italianate tone, with an impeccable legato and a ringing top.  He was also an energizing stage presence, his ‘son tue cifre’ in the wedding scene was filled with palpable anger and raised the emotional temperature of the scene exponentially.  He sang his big final scene with tireless passion, the ever-soaring line dispatched with warmth and generosity, filling the text with meaning.  A notable assumption from this naturally gifted singer.

In the remainder of the cast, Fabrizio Beggi sang Raimondo in a lugubrious bass, his immaculate line showing the kind of identification with the idiom that cannot be taught.  Marco Alves Dos Santos brought a focused and bright tenor to Arturo, singing with ringing tone on high.  Patrícia Quinta sang Alisa in a full-toned and fruity mezzo, while Sérgio Martins brought a swagger and enthusiasm to the role of Normanno. 

Photo: © TNSC / António Pedro Ferreira

Pirolli showed once again his profound understanding of this music.  He combined that ideal Donizettian combination of long lyrical lines superimposed on a constantly-moving rhythmic base.  The sweetness and lyricism he brought out in the violins, with generous use of portamento, was beguiling and the house orchestra responded to him with playing of superb quality.  Yes, the attack in the horns at the opening was not quite absolutely unanimous, but no doubt this will come in future performances.  Pirolli’s tempi were extremely well chosen throughout – he gave his singers space, but also kept things moving.  Giampaolo Vessella’s chorus sang with big, theatre-filling tone and excellent blend.  Certainly, the house forces proved once again why this is a theatre worth visiting.

There was a lot that gave satisfaction tonight, musically.  Marques made a tremendous debut in the title role and Gomes was a glorious Edgardo.  Pirolli also demonstrated his mastery in this repertoire and the house forces were on top form.  Romero’s staging is, unfortunately, a literal car crash.  The premise and starting point are actually sensible and it could have worked quite well.  And yet, the gratuitous violence that spectators were not warned about, the lack of understanding of how best to optimize vocal technique and projection of the singers, and the seriously unmusical crashing sound that broke the spell of Marques’ terrific mad scene, all of these led to some significant disappointment.  The São Carlos audience responded to the performance with polite applause, big cheers for Beggi, Gomes, Marques and Pirolli, and a few isolated boos for Romero and his team.  Definitely worth seeing for the musical aspects. 

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