Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Lucia Di Lammermoor - ENO

Lucia di Lammermoor – by Donizetti
English National Opera at London Coliseum
16th February 2008 (8 performances)
Reviewed by Mark Valencia

Hard on the heels of the Royal Opera’s triumphant staging of La Fille du Régiment, ENO has mounted what is, astonishingly, their first ever production of Donizetti’s masterpiece. In so doing they have assembled a first rate cast under former company musical director Paul Daniel and controversial stage director David Alden.

The big attraction in any production of Lucia is the casting of the doomed lovers, Edgardo and Lucia, even though they only share one scene in the entire opera. It would be hard to imagine a finer pairing than Barry Banks and the American coloratura soprano Anna Christy. Miss Christy, who had been suffering from bronchitis before the first night, has a youthfulness and vulnerability that are ideally suited to the role, and her tonal beauty and musicianship are impeccable. The after-effects of illness may have left her voice the odd decibel short – and there was a palpable tension before the high notes in her extended mad scene – but this remains a formidable reading of the role. For all that Alden’s pitiless direction pulls her about, requiring her to sing prone, upside down or contorted like plasticine, Christy’s vocal control remains supreme.

The opera is cast from strength throughout, and on opening night even bass-baritone Paul Whelan, singing from the side while an indisposed Clive Bayley mimed his fine portrayal of Raimondo, could hardly be bettered. Mark Stone’s cruel Enrico is beautifully characterised while Banks’s Edgardo, ludicrously bekilted like one of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart warriors, sings quite radiantly.

As so often with today’s ENO, the singers find themselves pitted against a director’s Big Concept. David Alden’s brand of lumbering expressionism won’t be to everyone’s taste; he doesn’t do subtle. His basic premise is undeniably persuasive: by advancing Donizetti’s (and Sir Walter Scott’s) action by 80 years he is able to mine a rich vein of Victorian values – genteel outward appearances that conceal (or even propagate) a more degenerate reality. So far so good: Alden reveals shades of The Turn of the Screw, still fresh in the minds of ENO audiences, that are apt and unmistakable. Effective use is made of faded ancestral photographs to accentuate the history between the Ashton and Ravenswood houses, and Charles Edwards’s ruined sets, lowering and cold, are creepily side-lit by Adam Silverman. It’s all very striking; but it’s expressionism of a kind that has been done elsewhere frequently, similarly, and so much better than here. Alden’s visual world closely resembles Polly Teale’s Shared Experience
A Doll’s House, but minus Ms Teale’s finesse, or maybe Marianne Elliott’s NT Thérèse Raquin, but without the mystery and menace. Instead, for every moment of inspiration, Alden commits a clunking howler that elicits titters rather than gasps. A scene of incestuous intent on the part of Enrico towards his sister shatters rather than intensifies the tension of their duet, and some bizarre business involving two men and a rope (don’t ask) ensures that in that moment our attention is on the director, not the composer. That can’t be right.

In the pit all is well, and the ENO Orchestra welcomes back its former music director with a dazzling display of fizz and brio, while a well-drilled ENO chorus is on unusually fine form. Bel Canto is back with a bang.
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