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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.

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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.