Lucia di Lammermoor - Opera Holland Park, 12 June 2012
There's nothing to beat open-air opera on a warm summer's evening. But the winter coats and woolly hats were out in force on Tuesday night for the chilliest start to a Holland Park season that I can remember.
Just a quickie from the openimg night of Lucia di Lammermoor at the San Francisco Opera, where after a wobbly start Natalie Dessay stormed through the title role, every note in place, with exquisite poise and total control. If she (surprisingly) wasn't 100% convincing dramatically, that was down to the production, curiously static, rather undirected, set entirely on a heather carpeted 'Scottish moor' that looked more like the rough end of a car park. Jean-Yves Ossonce's sluggish pacing hardly helped. Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo pushed like he was about to lay an egg, sounding severely strained and compressed rather too often, but his tail-wagging enthusiasm lifted the production every time he came on stage.
An entertaining evening, but with nothing else up to La Nata's standard, it made me appreciate just how good David Alden's much less starry recent production at the ENO really was. Full report and pictures later.
It's set in an austere baronial pile in some buttoned-up Victorian-ish Scotland where you wear underwear beneath your underwear. Everyone looks as if they've just received some very bad news, and everything is the colour of porridge or granite. Portraits of tightlipped ancestors crop up again and again to show that no-one here can break free of their family ties, or their past.
The dark and brooding Enrico (Mark Stone) is the lord and master of all, including his younger sister, Lucia (a disturbingly child-like Anna Christy). He plays with his childhood toys, then he plays with her as if she were just another toy, undressing her, tying her up and groping her. No wonder when hairy Highlander Edgardo (Barry Banks) swings his sporran her way she falls for him, even though he's Enrico's sworn enemy. It must be the kilt that does it.
But for all the imagined psychological background, there's little in the way of menace. This is gothic melodrama, not Hammer horror. Lucia's bobbing crinoline and oversized bloomers suggest an Oscar night with Bjork rather than a passion-trigger, and Enrico's bullying and incestuous urges are swiftly reined in by his practicality and sense of propriety. Besides, with the chorus swarming through the windows and over the furniture every five minutes, no-one's ever alone.
The doll-like Anna Christy rose above the burden of her pantaloons to make a sweet and affecting Lucia, never more so than in her final blood drenched mad scene, piercing a hole through the heart with her laser-pure tones. Her coloratura was accurately pitched and acrobatically precise, and only a meanie could object to the five seconds of slurry trilling that flawed an otherwise brilliant performance.
Mark Stone's panto swagger was tempered with humanity, a softer side that made his final remorse all the more convincing. A dry sound crept in here and there as he pushed his voice out into the mighty Coliseum, but mostly his singing was plummy and incisive.
Barry Banks displayed a firm, ringing tenor, if a little pinched at the start, and great breath control given the amount of racing around he had to do. It was a surprisingly unsympathetic characterisation, a coarse and hairy oaf who shoved Lucia around and pinned her roughly to the floor, making him simply the least repellent of the men who want to brutalise and dominate her.
Dwayne Jones made the best of a difficult job with Arturo, oddly presented here as a foppish southern gentleman type from another era, in immaculate white suit and cigarette holder. His voice was assured and flexible, and I think should make a good job of Edgardo when he takes the part over for a couple of nights later in the run.
Clive Bayley was a competent and effective Raimondo, fully recovered after a disastrous opening night in which he lost his voice and had to mime while understudy Paul Whelan sang the part from the wings.
In the pit, Paul Daniel's spunky and decisive conducting was barely compromised by slow tempos here and there. At least this enabled the singers to enunciate clearly. It was the first time in many ENO visits I've barely needed to check the surtitles.
A glass harmonica replaced the more usual flute accompaniment for Lucia's mad scene, in line with Donizetti's original intentions. At first fascinating - it's a more effective texture than the flute alongside the soprano voice - its needling dog whistle overtones soon started to raise my blood pressure. I realised why it was said in the nineteenth century to drive people mad.
This brief irritation aside, it was an enthralling and brilliantly performed production that raises the bar for the rest of the ENO season.