Lucia di Lammermoor: even a director with a feminist agenda can’t save her from her fate

This production at the Royal Opera House pushes the show’s reliance on its central character even further.

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In many 19th-century operas, terrible things happen to a woman, she sings about them, and then dies. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, she will go mad prior to expiring in a grisly fashion. At the end, the principal male characters – who are likely all responsible in some way for her demise – will stand around her body and sing about what a tragedy it all is.

Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic masterpiece from 1835, fits this archetype exactly. It is based on Walter Scott’s 1819 gothic novel The Bride of Lammermoor, in which poor Lucy Ashton is forced to abandon her lover Edgar in favour of an unwelcome marriage arranged by her domineering mother. The opera loosely follows this plot: after Lucia’s brother Enrico shows her forged evidence of Edgardo’s infidelity, Lucia allows herself to be married off, only to start seeing ghosts and lose her grip on reality as the deceptions unravel. She eventually stabs her unwanted husband on their wedding night and kills herself, believing that she is unloved and abandoned.

As the heroine of a gothic horror story, Lucia has little agency. Things happen to her, either because fate intervenes or because her male relations take action. Yet she is the focal point of the story, and Donizetti reflected this in his music. Hers is one of the great coloratura soprano parts, full of elaborate trills and piercing high notes. This music is chiefly why Lucia remains in the operatic repertoire, unlike most of the composer’s other works.

This production at the Royal Opera House (until 27 November) is a revival of a new show from last year. It pushes the opera’s reliance on its central character even further, and director Katie Mitchell made headlines when she declared that she had “a strong feminist agenda”. Although it’s hard to reconcile this with the patriarchal plot, Mitchell’s artistic choices are fascinating: she presents the opera on a “split screen” set, so that two scenes play simultaneously: one sung, the other mimed. Lucia is barely offstage for the entire show, and we see her pursued – from graveyard to bedroom to bathroom – by her brother and his minions.

In this way, we see far more of Lucia’s inner life. She and her maid, Alisa, are acted with great intensity by Lisette Oropesa and Rachael Lloyd. At times, watching them silently comforting each other or lacing up corsets was far more interesting than the full-throated male camaraderie going on across the stage. Charles Castronovo as Lucia’s lover and Christopher Maltman as her brother both give excellent vocal performances, but are theatrically overshadowed.

Mitchell also modifies the murder plot, so that although her Lucia does stab her husband, it is the miscarriage triggered by the trauma that has greater prominence in the staging. With her bloomers stained with blood, she sobs in her friend’s arms, and Lucia is suddenly a far more recognisable character than Scott’s chilly heroine.

Act III then brings the infamous “mad scene”, where an unhinged Lucia wanders among the men gathered for her nightmarish wedding, singing of a delusion in which she is happily married to Edgardo. Oropesa, a young soprano making her Royal Opera House debut, dazzles in this aria, bringing a quiet sincerity to what can be quite a hammy scene. Her perfect intonation deliberately collides with the dissonant flute accompaniment, making the audience’s ears ring. But then, of course, she dies. Even a director with a feminist agenda can’t save Lucia from her fate.

Virtuosity of a far more cheerful kind was on display when the pianist Boris Giltburg came to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 (2 November). The piece is widely considered to be one of the most difficult in the standard piano repertoire. It was concocted by the Russian composer both as a way of showing off his own musical prowess (he premiered the piece in New York in 1909) and of pushing the lush, Romantic style then in the ascendance to its limits. Giltburg’s fast-paced interpretation suited the muscular, dark tone of the piece, with its Russian Orthodox-inspired central theme. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, backed him up ably. At times, especially in the solo piano sections, there was an extra swagger to Giltburg’s playing, as if he was demonstrating that he and the piano could outplay the entire orchestra.

The programme was filled out with the premiere of a new commission by the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz and a wonderfully vivid rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 6. Ortiz’s Hominum: Suite for Orchestra was written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Mexican constitution in February this year, and her percussion-heavy, rhythmic music briefly transported the audience to another continent. 

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship