Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti (30 June 2012)
Zanetto, Mascagni and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini (6 July 2012)
Shortly before he produced and conducted a production of Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala Milan in 1954 Herbert von Karajan visited Scotland to imbibe the atmosphere. The rugged lowland scenery forms the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, on which Donizetti’s opera is based. Olivia Fuchs’s production at Holland Park had no such interest in the textual origins of the piece or the spirit of the genius loci that helped make Scott such an irresistible attraction to composers and librettists of the bel canto era. The opera may belong unequivocally to the era of literary and musical romanticism, but this production sought something different; it was not until Edgardo mentioned the word Scotland towards the end of the first act that you were reminded where the opera is supposed to be set. The costuming evoked the decadence of the 1890s, and the debauched revelries at the wedding suggested that Lucia – forced into an arranged marriage by her cash-stricken brother, Enrico – belonged to a less primitive but equally shocking culture of sexual oppression.
The scenic settings of Lucia offer considerable scope for theatrical imagination: a gothic castle, a fountain haunted by a ghost, the great hall where the terrible events of the wedding celebration unfold, the ruined tower of Wolf’s Crag, the castle cemetery where Edgardo stabs himself after hearing of Lucia’s demise. Jamie Vartan’s sparse sets exploited little of this, consisting of a vast slate wall split – symbolically? – down the middle; a bed which moved progressively to the centre of the stage, providing an effective focus for Lucia’s powerless drift to the hated marital bed; and a number of wire-mesh fences, which were moved around the stage to create various caged environments. Scenery and direction thus drew out the violent sexual undertones. There was a suggestion that Enrico harboured incestuous desires for his sister; and Lord Arturo, the man to whom Lucia is fatally (for him as well as for her) forced into marrying, chased his betrothed around the bed in front of the wedding guests in a public display of repellent virility. Catherine Clément’s judgement in Opera, or the Undoing of Women that the ‘trite struggle’ of the warring families of Ashton and Ravenswood is ‘played out on Lucia’s body’ was perhaps too thoroughly demonstrated.
An oddity about Lucia is that, in an opera of such heightened emotion, the key dramatic event takes place offstage. Lucia’s stabbing of her husband – her great moment of defiance (induced by madness or not) – is narrated to the wedding guests by the chaplain, Raimondo. Clément would no doubt see this as part of Lucia’s ‘undoing’, this time by her creators, Donizetti and the librettist Salvatore Cammarano. When events did happen on the stage, Fuchs appeared to want them to be more dramatic than the music, nowhere less happily than in the famous sextet. This pivotal moment sees the central characters express their conflicting emotions following Edgardo’s interruption of the signing of the marriage contract. (The scene is comparable in dramatic intent, if not musical brilliance, to the septet in The Marriage of Figaro.) The arrangement, from a duet to a quartet to a sextet, culminating in the soprano’s repeated high B flats, is a musical depiction of unbroken tension as Donizetti successfully transforms the prior confrontation and disorder into melody. In Fuchs’s conception the characters moved aggressively about the stage with Arturo landing a blow on Edgardo; only Enrico was permitted to stand front stage and unfold his inner emotions. It is at this point that the villain begins to express sympathy for his sister and remorse for his betrayal of one who is of his blood – ‘È mio sangue! l’ho tradita’. With the other characters brawling away it is unlikely that the audience paid much attention to the brother’s words, making his later remorse at the end of the mad scene sound even more hollow than usual.
Musically, the performance was a much happier affair. Stuart Stratford led the City of London Sinfonia with eloquence and precision. Philipp Alexander Marguerre played the Glass Harmonica – the instrument Donizetti had originally written into the score but which had to be replaced in the first performance by a flute – spectacularly well. The sound that Goethe considered ‘das Herzblut der Welt’ – the lifeblood of the world – generated an eerie accompaniment to Lucia’s insane utterings that was truly chilling. The title role was sung by the Russian soprano, Elvira Fatykhova. Her voice was bright, fragile (appropriately so) but sufficiently penetrating; the coloratura was agile and the vocal technique sure. The very highest notes of the mad scene were slightly shrill but the overall performance was musical and full of dynamic contrast. That cannot quite be said of the otherwise excellent tenor, Aldo Di Toro. An Italian-Australian, he possesses a fine voice and acted with fervour, enunciating the text and vocalising the lines in a convincingly Italianate style. The rhythm was often slack, however, and it was no coincidence that he sounded better in the duets with Lucia and Enrico. The Verdian thrust of the Wolf’s Crag scene was a highlight of the evening. Enrico was sung with full voice and hostile presence by David Stephenson; the Chaplain Raimondo was acted ponderously – and sometimes sung ponderously – by Keel Watson. He did, however, deliver his narrative about Lucia’s murder of Arturo – a difficult moment to pull off dramatically – with warm tone and compelling force. Arturo himself was given a lively performance by Aled Hall.
At Holland Park one gets used to waiting for the patrons to stroll in from the bar and take up their seats several minutes after the performance is scheduled to start or recommence. On 6 July the evening was delayed by the late arrival of a violinist who slowly made his way to his seat and who was still adjusting his score when the conductor, Matthew Waldren, drew out the opening chords of Mascagni’s Zanetto.
This one-act rarity, with a cast of two singers and running to no more than forty minutes, was coupled with Puccini’s comic delight, Gianni Schicchi. Both operas are set in or near Florence, and the same bedroom set was used for each with the addition of a few extra props for Schicchi.
Holland Park’s long-standing policy of unearthing forgotten Italian operas of the post-Verdi period has produced some excellent productions of worthy pieces that deserve to be better known. Zanetto, alas, is not likely to catch on. It tells the story of an encounter between a beautiful but ageing courtesan, Sylvia, and a restless wandering minstrel, Zanetto; the libretto is adapted from an Italian translation of Franҫois Coppée’s play, Le passant (The Passer-by). The contrast between innocent, idealistic youth and fatalistically pragmatic age emerges from music that oozes nostalgia.
The problem is that very little happens. The events of Sylvia’s life are past, those of Zanetto in the future. The piece might easily be a tone poem for orchestra and two female voices (Zanetto is a trouser role), capturing the twin emotions of hope and regret. The Holland Park production was hardly staged, as such, and it is difficult to know how the opera could be effectively staged for there is so little action. Musically, however, it is tuneful and there was much to enjoy in the singing. Janice Watson struck just the right regretful tone for Silvia. Her strong, beautiful, well-focused voice contrasted effectively with Patricia Orr’s brighter, more youthful- sounding Zanetto.
Gianni Schicchi woke the audience from its slumbering state, though not initially through music. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans, a stalwart of Holland Park, introduced a pre-orchestral prelude of some five minutes where the various relatives of the wealthy, bed-ridden Buoso Donatti, who are waiting for him to die, enter the stage one by one and take up their positions before the opening notes. It proved an effective way of establishing the story: the grasping relatives learn that Buoso has left his money and belongings to a monastery; the resourceful Gianni Schicchi is called in and hatches a plan, impersonating the dead Buoso to compose a new will, only to outwit the relatives by bequeathing the most valuable possessions to himself. The whole performance was superbly choreographed and slickly executed by the singers, all of whom proved effective actors.
Schicchi offers a wonderful challenge for a character baritone. It was sung here by Alan Opie, an award-winning Falstaff and in a class of his own in this company. Like the best vocal actors he knows how to achieve humour without sliding into slapstick, and passages where the risks were high – such as his impersonation of Buoso in the scene with the doctor, where he propped the dead man’s body in front of him, mimicked his voice and gestured with the corpse’s limp arms – were excellently judged.
Unfortunately, the opera’s most famous number, ‘O mio babbino caro’, was given a dull performance by Anna Patalong, the weak bottom of her voice failing to establish the momentum needed for Puccini’s long, coasting line. The only other character to get a full-length aria, the tenor Rinuccio, was sung with youthful infectiousness by Jung Soo Yun. Among the other scheming relatives, the vocal plaudits went to Carole Wilson, excellent as Rinuccio’s grumpy aunt, and Simon Wilding (Betto), who has the vocal presence to be singing more substantial parts than the small roles he habitually takes at Holland Park. Matthew Waldren, an associate conductor who handled this and one other performance in the run, set an energetic pace, and drew crisp, clear playing from the orchestra. For once the peacocks were quiet; and for once in this summer of rain the sun struggled on to the end, which meant that the final view of a sunny Florence in the distance, with which Gianni Schicchi ends, was not entirely out of place with the opera-in-the-park setting.