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 Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

Royal Opera House, London,  April 7 - May 19, 2016

Photographs by Stephen Cummiskey, courtesy of the Royal Opera House

This production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden was the first for over a decade. The director, Katie Mitchell, is probably best known for her theatre work and for modern rather than historical opera so that taking on a bel canto war horse was something new for her with its quite different method, ethos and emphasis. Mitchell had made her position clear in a pre-performance discussion that she wanted a strong feminist focus seeing Lucia as an older woman, more in line with the singer’s age, with a developed and forceful personality including strong sexual feelings rather than the more traditional callow girl.  She also wanted to fill out the narrative by showing the events that were happening simultaneously with those portrayed in the opera in order to give a more rounded picture. The result very definitely divided opinion.

Russell Burdekin saw the first night on April 7 and has provided the following: 

All in all, this was a curious affair, one that did not fully come off but had tremendous impact in many ways and was ultimately, for me, a memorable and distinguished performance. Katie Mitchell's aim to give Lucia a more definite and vibrant personality succeeded much better and to greater theatrical effect than the attempt to include debatable and sometimes irrelevant additional action in order to elucidate better what is in any case a pretty straightforward story.  Her way of achieving this parallel action was to divide the stage in half for much of the opera with the usual opera scenes going on in one half while the other showed events happening elsewhere at that time including, in the first two scenes, sometimes being completely empty of action.  Thus in the first two scenes all the operatic action was crammed into the left half of the stage and sometimes not visible to the audience in the left of the house. Perhaps the impetus for such a dual approach might have been to help elaborate Mitchell’s idea of Lucia’s pregnancy following the somewhat decorous sex in her initial scene with Edgardo. Happily, the wedding scene, perhaps the best rendering of it that I remember, was shown as a single stage but worse was to come after the interval when Mitchell showed Arturo being murdered at some length simultaneously with the Wolf Crag scene where Enrico and Edgardo meet to arrange a duel. Mitchell said that she included it to show the motivation for Lucia going mad but the way it was done with a touch of  “he’s dead but he won’t lie down”  to laughter from the audience seemed a ridiculously silly piece of pseudo realism (OK so it’s difficult to kill someone with a kitchen knife) that must have been very annoying to Ludovic Tézier and Charles Castronovo singing with great finesse and passion in the right half of the stage.  The unseen events can be understood pretty straightforwardly without such elaboration and I’m sure that the twists that Mitchell wanted to include could have been suggested with more economical and less clumsy means and without the resulting lengthy scene changes.

Elsewhere her ideas were imaginative and much more productive. One idea that I thought would become tiresome but actually turned out to be quite effective was the use of two actress ghosts (of the woman killed at the fountain and her mother?, her younger self?), one of whom slumped with telling effect onto the table during the wedding scene.  Mitchell had the female choristers dressed as men so that she was able to retain the musical balance while emphasising the misogyny and male dominance of the situation. Lucia's bloodstained clothes were not Arturo's blood but her own miscarriage. Episodes where Lucia or Edgardo were nominally alone or with others but where their lover is clearly foremost in their mind were given physical representation, so that Edgardo appeared in the mad scene while then joining Lucia dead in her bath for his suicide.  This sort of thing has been suggested before in some productions but not to my knowledge in anything like so thoroughgoing a manner and I found the idea and its realisation particularly powerful.   

Thus overall, a good production that held the attention but which could probably do with a radical rethink to bring its virtues more into focus uncluttered by extraneous irrelevant details. My feeling was that Mitchell had not really appreciated or perhaps was deliberately ignoring the basis of bel canto opera, the vocalism, as the driver of the dramatic excitement in distinction to her wish to achieve it from an explicitly staged narrative. That’s not to say that the vocalism was not good.  All the male leads were excellent, particularly Ludovic Tézier as Enrico.  However, I did wonder if the amount of work Diana Damrau was being given to do might have occasionally blunted her delivery and while an impressive dramatic rendering overall it was not outstanding in purely vocal terms.  The orchestra under Daniel Oren played cleanly but their performance did tend sometimes towards the routine, although the cadenza with glass harmonica worked  better than other times that I’ve heard it. Thus, much to admire but much to question, something reflected in the mixed press reviews and audience reaction in general. 

Alan Jackson saw the production twice, the last of Diana Damrau’s performances and the third of Aleksandra Kurzak’s and had added the following

Russell has described the production in some detail. My problem with it is that all the extra business distracts from the music, and in a more extreme way than I have ever experienced before. In my view the most essential component of opera is the music and it is this that carries the emotional charge of the drama. Never mind the violence on stage, Katie Mitchell’s continual subverting of the music does great violence to Donizetti. If she wants to present her take on Lucia let her write or commission her own music. The first time I saw it I realised that I had barely heard the music of the Wolf’s Crag scene, so engrossingly distracting was the competing action. For the record, in the Kurzak performance the smothering of Arturo had been replaced by more stabbing. 

Kurzak acted brilliantly and her singing was, to my ears, much superior to Damrau’s, with the coloratura up to speed and better articulated. Interestingly, she eschewed some of the higher versions that have become traditional (the first flourish in the Fountain aria and a high B instead of a G just before the cabaletta) though we still had closing notes in alt at the ends of arias and ensembles and she didn’t restore some of the equally traditional snips elsewhere. Stephen Costello was a fine Edgardo even if, like Castronovo before him, he sounded relieved to get to the end of his final aria without mishap. I was impressed by the forthright Enrico of Artur Rusiński, his voice ample yet finely focussed. Matthew Rose was the reliable Raimondo. Daniel Oren conducted sympathetically.


The Team 

Lucia - Diana Damrau / Aleksandra Kurzak

Edgardo - Charles Castronovo / Stephen Costello

Enrico - Ludovic Tézier / Artur Ruciński

Raimonda - Kwangchul Youn / Matthew Rose

Alisa - Rachael Lloyd

Normanno - Peter Hoare

Arturo - Taylor Stayton / David Junghoon Kim


Conductor - Daniel Oren

Director - Katie Mitchell

Designer - Vicki Mortimer

Lighting - Jon Clark


Orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House.




© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

Lucia and Edgardo






© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The beginning of the wedding scene with Arturo, Lucia, Enrico and Raimondo






© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The wedding scene with the "ghosts"






© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The mad scene





© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The mad scene with Enrico making an unscheduled appearance






© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The split stage with an exhausted Lucia and Alisa having dispatched Arturo on the one side
and the "Wolf's Crag" scene taking place on the other







© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The final scene but with Edgardo actually dying with a physical Lucia on the one side rather than in the midst of Enrico's followers who are shown milling around on the left, as would normally be the case.






© Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2016

The right side of the above scene in more detail.


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