It’s been a bloody old time here at Opera Watch as murder stalks the corridors of our offices at Northern Soul Towers.
Normally a quiet time of the year for live opera, I’ve been down to HOME in Manchester to catch the streaming of two operas from London and New York. I say bloody not because of the body count but because all the deaths were mainly at the hands of others, with a few suicides thrown in for good measure. In fact, so bloody was Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House that it came with a 15 certificate. In all my years as an opera correspondent (two), I have never seen a production passed by the board of censors with such a prohibitive diploma.
Katie Mitchell’s feminist production of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto tragedy caused something of a chronique scandaleuse, so much so that it was booed in some circles in the audience (I’m still waiting for reports of what happened in the stalls). Booing at an opera? Has civilisation gone completely mad? What next? Pogoing and gobbing? It left some critics choking on their free bubbly with an indignant apoplexy not seen since Hair. I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.
Donizetti borrowed the story from a novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor. It tells of the near penniless Master of Lammermoor, Enrico (Ludovic Tezier) who must marry his sister, Lucia (Diana Damrau) to rich Arturo (Taylor Stayton). Lucia is in love with her brother’s deadly rival, Edgardo (Charles Castronovo). Although the cast reads like the team sheet at Lazio, it is a Scottish tale and Edgardo must go to France to fight for Scotland. Before he goes he takes Lucia’s flower with him, wondering when will he see her like again. Lucia is tricked by her evil and greedy brother into thinking that Edgardo has run off with a French tart, leaving her with child and on the verge of madness. In some confusion, she marries Arturo, shags him and then murders him with the help of her maid, Alisa (Rachel Lloyd). Lucia, bleeding to death from a miscarriage, kills herself in the bath. The returning Edgardo is so wrecked with guilt and remorse that he slits his throat at Lucia’s side.
So far, just your average opera tale of lust, love, greed, duplicity, betrayal and murder. Why, then, the scandal?
From what I can gather, it involved the staging and mise-en-scène rather than the performances or the music, both of which I found to be of the highest order – so a huge bravo there. In terms of staging, Mitchell divided the stage in two, like a split screen at a movie. The action (the singing) takes place on one side while silent acting to embellish the story takes place on the other half of the stage; they interchange as the opera unfolds.
It’s a bit confusing trying to concentrate on the singing while keeping one eye on the silent acting. Par exemple, as Lucia’s brother and his pals celebrate at her wedding party with some wonderful chorus work, Lucia and Alisa are doing away with Arturo in more time than it took Rasputin to die. It was supremely comical – as the man in my row who couldn’t stop laughing can attest. On the other hand, the chorus were jam-packed into the other half of the stage looking for all the world like they were posing for Fantin-Latour painting a can of sardines. Alas not tragic but farcical.
The reviews also focused on the simulated sex scenes. Lucia mimes masturbation and later undresses and straddles Edgargo in rhythm with the music as they both come. Now I’m not an expert but as simulated sex scenes go it was pretty lame. A grope or even a gratuitous nipple worthy of a 15 certificate would have helped. There was also more fake blood than a Hammer horror movie directed by Jodorowsky. Where I should have weeping I was laughing along with the man in my row. All a bit Ludicrous di Hammermoor.
By contrast, Richard Strauss’s classical Greek tragedy Elektra (direct from The Met in New York) contained no simulated sex, fake blood or split stages and was all the better for it. Nina Stemme, who I last saw in Turandot, was a blistering Elektra, revelling in her madness as she awaits the return of her brother Orest (Eric Owens) to kill their mother, Klytämnestra (Waltraud Meier) for the murder of their father, King Agamemnon. Incestial matricide in the true Greek tradition that gave her name to the female version of the Oedipus Complex. It was a stunning one act performance that left me breathless as a truly great opera should.
Is it any wonder that my dreams are full of murder and blood? The blood’s fake of course but I could do with a bit more simulated sex.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent