Monday, February 18, 2008

The Goon Show of Lammermoor (English National Opera, 16 February)

It was probably Donizetti's librettist who made Lord Henry Ashton the villain who wrongs Lucia di Lammermoor, instead of Walter Scott's villainess in the novel who was Lucy's mother, thus depriving us of what might have been a great mezzo or contralto role. But in Donizetti's otto cento in Italy one female major role was usually considered the norm. However, we must not complain, because ever since the overwhelmingly successful premiere in Naples in 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor has been hailed as the Italian Romantic Opera par excellence with Lucia's Dotty Scene as the perfect hurdle for coloratura sopranos to jump to fame with, like our Dame Joanie di Sutherland back in 1959 at Covent Garden.

English National Opera premiered a new production of Lucia on Saturday 16 February. Musically it is ten out of ten. every note in place, with quite a few on an instrument rarely heard. Mozart, wrote a Rondo for it, K.617. Old Willi Gluck gave concerts on it and, of all people, Benjamin Franklin became a virtuoso and perfected it, the glass harmonica, a set of glasses tuned so that you produce the notes by running your hand around the rim (a modern parallel would be if George Bush were to play the ondes martenot) - it makes a noise as if the notes were wrapped in tinsel but with upper partials so strong that the sound actually hurts some ears (mine. for one; and, indeed, at one time as a result,the instrument was banned in certain towns in Germany.

So, musically the performance of Donizetti's opera was a treat. But what did we see on stage? Scene one gave a clue to what was going to happen; a Scottish castle with walls that sprouted radiators; now who has ever heard of a Scottish castle with radiators - or one that even nowadays has any heat ? The walls moved and the male chorus entered through the windows; period photographs littered the stage, as they did in most scenes. Lucia soon appears, perched four feet above stage level, so that she has to jump if she wants to move, which she does, wearing a little girl outfit with pantaloons that are on show as she picks herself up after her jump, is this Alice in Lammermoor? The tenor appears and as if to emphasise the fact that he is vertically challenged, he appears on his knees.

The villainous brother is seen on a short bed that features in many scenes; he gropes his sister, Lucia, and ties her wrists to the bedposts. Ah, ha. not only villainy but incest too (Incest - the game the whole family can play). And so it goes on, until you wonder whether Donald Alden, the producer of all this madness, should himself be sectioned. Myself, I know Lucia quite well so that soon I began to tolerate, even enjoy, the mad things that happened. But my companion was seeing the opera for the first time and she was very confused by all the goings on. Oh, yes, and there was also an extra going-on that the producer had not arranged. Bidebent the parson came on and opened his mouth; but he was kidding us, poor chap; he had lost his voice and another bloke stood at the side of the stage and sang his notes. Now there is usually a confidante in operas of this period (early nineteenth century, the otto cento, as the Italians call it). She makes her entry, one hand first round the door and then flitting across the stage to a tilting sofa, for all the world like a Hammer Horror.
Now comes the famous sextet (in the old 78 days, it was the only gramophone record, single-sided of' course, to have a white label and sell for sixteen shillings, the costliest of all - Caruso was the tenor, he made a huge success in the part of Edgardo. poor Lucia's intended but thwarted). Barry Banks was the Coliseum's tenor, English, wonderfully fluent, even if the voice is not ideally beautiful. Anna Christy, American, house debut, was a very fine Lucia, every note histrionically convincing.

When it came to the Mad Scene where was the flute obligato? Banished in favour of the musical glasses, apparently Donizetti's original idea to add spookiness to the wildly careering colaratura. Chorus and orchestra were both excellent under the splendidly driving Paul Daniels, back in the pit where for years he was ENO's musical director. So, if you can bear to see a goonish version of Lucia, go to the ENO show at the Coliseum and join the cheering crowds; they are in the majority, critics of this mayhem in the minority.

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