Edgy first responses to Covent Garden’s bloody Lucia

Loud applause for the singers was followed by boos for Katie Mitchell and her production team after the opening of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden last night.

One spectator told Slipped Disc that the boos were not above and beyond the normal for a challenging production.

The quickest reviews, just in, may indicate a split down gender political lines.

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Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph:

Mitchell makes Lucia a curiously modern figure, more Ruth Ellis than the fey Romantic heroine depicted in the music. Donizetti and his librettist quite carefully and plausibly chart her descent into madness – but Mitchell has chosen to ignore this, inventing a gratuitous plot line in which Lucia is desperately trying to abort Edgardo’s baby, enlisting the help of her maid Alisa and some kinky sex games in disposing of her wretched blameless husband.

Some might find this intriguing; I found it merely perverse – and heavy-handed too.

George Hall in the Stage:

There was a good deal of booing for the production team at their curtain call. Much of this is surely down to Mitchell’s split screen approach, whereby the audience sees not only the characters meant to be singing at any given moment, but what is happening simultaneously offstage. The effect is hugely distracting.

As the wedding guests (presented, curiously, as all male) celebrate Lucia’s nuptials with Arturo to one side of the stage, to the other we witness Lucia and Alisa kill him in what is clearly a premeditated attack. His death throes are so protracted as to generate laughter – no mean feat is this unrelievedly sombre piece.

Tim Ashley in the Guardian:

Though undeniably powerful in places – the last 40 minutes are unforgettable – this is ultimately a version of the opera rather than an interpretation, and the stagecraft can be over-complicated. Vicki Mortimer’s designs split each scene in two, allowing Mitchell both to confront us with parallel narratives throughout, and to bring on stage material that Donizetti leaves off it. But the result is as much distracting as illuminating, above all in the juxtaposition of the murder and the formidable performance of the Wolf’s Crag duet.

But Alexandra Coghlan on theartsdesk:

Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera in which men spend an awful lot of time talking about women, and very little actually talking to them. (Which, if nothing else, ensures a rather more dramatic denouement than a frank conversation about everyone’s hopes and dreams would produce.) Enter director Katie Mitchell and her “strong feminist agenda”, determined to give Donizetti’s women back their voices, and with them the agency every plot twist in the opera conspires to deny. If the result is by no means a classic production, neither is it the all-out assault on tradition and decency the Royal Opera’s recent warnings of sex and violence led us to believe….

Mitchell’s Lucia deserves much more than the knee-jerk booing it got on opening night. Thoughtful, if strident in its agenda, it has plenty to say, and finds an emotional violence and anger that’s as rare as it is authentic

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photo: Tristram Kenton

More to come.

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  • If you have something to say on feminism, discrimination, male dominion, 19C prejudices etc. etc. (etc.) say it in an entirely new opera, or better: in a book or essay. But do not tamper with a work of art which has been created more than a century ago.

    • Yes, let’s keep operas in museums, where the librettos which inspired their composers will be surgically removed from the notes – and the melodic lines will be performed on synthesisers, instead of human voices singing actual words…

    • May I suggest John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian to you, as well as Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias. You may find a few elements of interest. Of course, if you have more time, Gadamer’s Truth and Method might be equally interesting.

      In summary, artists are not archaeologists.

      • “……. artists are not archaeologists.” Agreed. But performing a musical or operatic work from the past is in itself already a contemporary artistic deed, offering enough opportunity to fill it with contemporary, i.e. authentic, life. No need to consciously change things, like the libretto with opera, or the notes or dynamics with a concert score. The misunderstanding of tampering with opera plots comes from the idea that audiences lack the imagination to follow these plots (= contemptuous patronizing), and the idea that works from the past have to be actualized to be meaningful (= equally contemptuous patronizing).

        Works which have stood the test of time have become contemporary for ever and an interpretation based upon Werktreue leaves enough space for variety.

        • This debate has been had in intellectual history for decades – at least since the 1960s, with the case for your originalist vision having been widely criticised. It is not mere ‘contempt’ – it’s just that if you accept that operas, like any great work, speak to an audience that is not only their local, temporal public, then you’d be a fool to restricting yourself to pretending that you are that original audience. Besides, whatever you do, you will transform the work from its original setting – the orchestra is different, musical practices are different (regardless of how much the HIP movement tries), audiences are different. For instance, how can you give an “authentic” performance of a Chopin/Liszt/Paganini concerto with professional musicians, knowing well that these concertos were written to mitigate the risks of stumbling upon a local band of dubious quality?

          • Agreed. But my (common sense) conclusion would be that this means that the performer has to try to stick to the original as much as possible, which means that it can never be entirely ‘authentic’ but that is not the point. When you give-up in advance that it won’t be authentic anyway, why making it even less authentic? That looks like giving-up altogether, and annexing the work to one’s own whims, turning the work into a vehicle for one’s own ideas – a kind of narcissistic stealing. The first requirement of performing a work of art is respect for what we have of evidence of authenticity and try to recreate the work as much as possible according to what we can deduce as the nature of the work. That already includes so many ambiguities – why adding more?

          • But that authenticity is – to a significant extent – respected in the form of taking the score and the libretto in their (near) unchanged state (there may be cuts, but apart from some bits of Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps, no serious opera house would dare actually change the words). I don’t see the point of making a fetish out of authenticity; why pretend one can be authentic when that is plainly impossible?

            Authenticity is one of the values that opera performances may have, and there have been some outstanding operas seeking to be as close as possible to ‘authentic’ performance standards. However, it is not necessarily the supreme value by which performances can be judged – nor is it the only one.

            Don’t get me wrong. I hate bad regietheater – because it is bad. To an extent, reinterpreting a work is a higher-risk activity than merely making a traditional production. It seems to me that reinterpretations are either excellent or bad – there is little middle ground. However, that does not mean we should avoid it at all costs – simply, that we need to do it better.

        • [[ No need to consciously change things, like the libretto with opera, or the notes or dynamics with a concert score.]]

          Your usual clickbait fiction. You were trounced on these lies in an earlier discussion of this production. I can’t understand why you submit yourself to the humiliation a second time?

          Moreover, since you HAVEN’T SEEN OR HEARD IT, have you?????????

          • As Mr B’s PA I have to object to the screaming of Mr M, which has put our employer into an irritated mood, hindering his work (yesterday afternoon just before tea he admitted to have written a contorted dissonant at an inappropriate place) and treating us with less tolerance than usual. The entire kitchen staff is on edge, mrs B is scolding the gardiners, and I still can’t find the contracts of the [redacted] Company for the new opera commission.

            Sally

  • Well, I’m a bloke, and I thought this was a stunning piece of drama – absolutely unflinching, yes, not not ‘perverse’, as it made explicit things that are clearly already implicit in the text.

    Tampering with a work of art from a century ago? No, showing the things that that work of art wanted to show, but was prevented from doing by the times in which it was created.

    It seemed to me, by the way, that Lucia had a miscarriage brought on by the stress of killing Arturo, something which provoked and explained her madness, rather than attempting an abortion, but I suppose that my sight-lines might not have been as clear as Rupert’s.

    • Concur – my reading of it was a miscarriage brought on by the stress of killing Arturo (together with thinking Eduardo was unfaithful and/or MIA, being forced to marry Arturo, Eduardo re-appearing, and so on).

  • Surely it is perfectly acceptable to re-interpret works of art from the past. Once a work is created and put before the public, it takes on a life of its own and can be viewed either strictly, within its historical, literary or social context or, re-evalued for its ability to speak to us via contemporary social values. Each approach I suggest, has validity.

    • But isn’t there a difference between interpretation around the work, and within the work – i.e. in its presentation/performance? If thought-through, complete freedom for the performer opens the door to arrogant pulverizing of the original, as we indeed see regularly in the cultural field. When seeing MacBeth, I want to see what Shakespeare made of it, and not a contemporary director’s opinions of what S should have done if he had not felt inhibited by the lack of left politics, feminism, postmodernism, and gender equality, and was not handicapped by not having been able to read Foucault.

      An entirely loyal performance – loyal to the nature of the work and its time of creation – is, for instance, Ponelle’s and Harnoncourt’s performance of Monteverdi’ Poppea:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZZyySg6JZU act 1 & 2

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j650NanGNyk act 3

      It is an entirely modern production on all levels, if ‘modern’ is understood as being the result of modern research and understanding of older art, and ‘modern’ in the sense of being filled with authentic life of the performers. Everything in this production is interpretation, not in the least the music. Who’s to complain it is ‘not contemporary’? In culture, works of art occupy a level where distances in time and place don’t count, which is very fortunate because in that way, they remain accessible to later generations. Also, these works demonstrate that basically, human nature does not change much (as we can conclude from the daily news).

      It is the last century’s obsession with ‘progress’ which, in culture, unintentionally destroys what it attempts to recapture, because of an entirely misconceived value framework.

  • I have absolutely no problem with reinterpreting, updating, or even challenging/altering the message of operas (provided it is done skillfully, of course – just like normal, unchallenging productions). I am more concerned with the fact that two of the four reviews quoted above mention split-screen effects which distract from the singing. This betrays a lack of understanding of what opera is about – theatre through music. If this production fails, I suspect it will be because of technical failures (the split-screen distraction), rather than its controversial reinterpretation.

    • Don’t believe a word of any of them. This was one of the most technically accomplished, and most theatrical, productions Covent Garden has seen for many years.

      I find the idea of distraction bizarre, as every dumb-show scene was commenting on and amplifying what was being sung on the other half the stage. If anything, the dumb-shows made one more aware of what was being sung, and the emotions being presented by the music, not less.

      It’s rather like saying that you can’t concentrate on a singer’s voice because he’s moving his hand up and down, and, frankly, it shows a pretty limited appreciation of theatre and how it works from these much-vaunted critics.

      • I haven’t seen it yet but will do so shortly – you reaction is very encouraging. The split-screen method of conveying drama has been with us a long time now and shouldn’t distract if the viewer is alert and paying attention!

      • And who doesn’t multi-screen these days at home with the telly on? Commentary on twitter and other sites is ongoing and (depending on whom you follow) absolutely enriches anything I’m watching.

      • Agreed in general, other than the comedic killing and re-killing of Arturo, which has the Amphitheatre in stitches and loud guffaws from much of the rest of the audience. It was hilarious; generating exactly the wrong and completely inappropriate reaction.
        I see the director’s problem – having bound him and killed him, there’s a lot of time left in the scene playing out stage left to fill, now that we’re going down this split-stage route; but, really, this “Tom & Jerry” moment was more than a little misguided and ill-fitting.

      • Surely the production-any production- should be the servant of the music? When the director ignores this, as Mitchell did time and again, things go wrong. Last night the seldom performed Wolf’s Crag duet was sung beautifully, whilst on the other side of the stage Lucia was murdering Arturo, an action the audience responded to with widespread embarrassed giggles. Distraction is too polite a term to describe the effect of the split-stage concept, and when the ghost followed the tenor through a window…………

        Sad, because musically the show was charming : Oren has been criticised, but I thought he and the orchestra worked well together. Damrau is no Sutherland and does not have much of a shimmer, but gave of her best. The men were excellent, as was the chorus, although the confines of the set meant that one did not see most of them.

        All in all, a show to rank with Tell, Idomeneo, Ballo and other recent offerings from the Holten regime. Will it ever be revived? Would any other soprano able to sing the role accept the indignities that Damrau had to put up with?

  • There are always going to be traditionalists who will question the validity and rationale for updating the action of an opera and the way it is presented. These are the days we live in and they aren’t going to change anytime soon. The gripe I have with the regie school of directors is that too often they pay far too much attention to their “concept” and then trying to fit it in with the music – and very often it does not. It clashes – and in my view that is when things start to go downhill. I fully accept that in the case of Lucia Katie Mitchell said she listened to the music for a great deal of time before coming up with her “concept.” I haven’t seen the production and so I feel it is not right for me to comment until I do so.

    However, there was a discussion about Richard Jones Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier in earlier threads – although less about the production than about another issue that some found pertinent and others not. Jones updates the opera to some time in the mid-20th century. A Dresden production I saw a couple of years ago is set in much the same period. But two things seem perfectly clear. In so doing, neither director had really gone into the heart of all the music and had paid scant attention to much of the detail of libretto. A lot of people enjoyed Jones’ production, but how does one successfully transplant a work that in music and words is clearly set in one period of time into another if in so doing you continually create clashes with the original? If you are going to bring Rosenkavalier forward two centuries, how do you account for levees, formal silver rose presentations, a preponderance of Viennese waltzes and so on unless you also change much of the libretto? Surely attention has to be paid both to the music and the words! “Concepts” have to work throughout the production – not merely here and there where they fit in with a director’s view. How often do we see and hear the word “distracting”, precisely because the “concept” at times just does not work! And if it works only for part of a performance, then in my view it fails.

    • I don’t really want to derail this discussion of Lucia at the ROH (which I haven’t seen), but I’d like to respond to the issues raised about the RJ Rosenkav at Glyndebourne (which I saw via an internet broadcast).

      Every show must have a concept. It’s the guiding principle which keeps the show on the rails – it’s “what it’s about”. Shows about nothing are doomed to failure.

      The RJ Rosenkavalier set its action in the period in which the opera was written. This seems extremely valid to me. Some examination is needed of why a composer in the first decade of the C20th would write an opera about the manners and mores of the C18th? And not based on any work of literature from the C18th, or even based on actual events of the C18th – but an entirely new and original work by Hofmannstahl, which merely imagines how things must have been?

      Yet Hofmannstahl’s work – for all the weary and woefully unfunny sections with “Mariendel” – also attempts to show the passing of the Old Order. The game is up for the aristocrats, and Herr von Faninal is the new breed – a self-made man, an industrialist, whose money has been earned, and not inherited.

      The presentation of the archaic and outmoded elements of aristocratic privilege – the levees, the petitioners, the Viennese waltzes – take on a new significance in that, despite the passing of time, there are still remnants of this Old Order to be found. One of them will be celebrating her 90th birthday this week, in fact – with no hint whatsoever of any kind of reform or toning-down of the outrageous ostentation and pageant with which she appears before her loyal taxpaying subscribers. And yes – the Duke of Edinburgh is indeed a perfect Ochs 😉

      Every director will come to Rosenkav with their own views about the action. Personally, when I was asked to stage the final 45 mins for Opera Studio graduate performers, I also moved the action to the 1920s (budget, ahem!) – but my interest was in the core of the work, which is not, I believe, about privilege or patronage at all. It’s really the personal tragedy of a woman locked in a loveless, unfaithful marriage (“and to love the love he bore another…”) – and realises that there’s no way out for her. She is destined to have more trivial affairs, with more Oktavians, who will leave her in exactly the same way – for more Dopey Sophies (whom they will then cheat on later).

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