So, Katie Mitchell’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor is already causing a bit of a stir. It’s not going as far as the general outcry towards her recent version of Cleansed at the National, but it’s coming close. In her retelling at the Royal Opera House, Mitchell has dared take an out-of-date, ludicrous and frankly misogynistic show, and make it progressive, graphic, exciting and… really? We’re really going to boo this?
Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is actually adapted from the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor. Enrico Ashton (Ludovic Tézier), worrying about his family’s estate, agrees to marry off his sister Lucia (Diana Damrau) to the wealthy Arturo Bucklaw (Taylor Stayton). However, Lucia has fallen in love with the much more swarthy, and therefore abhorrant, Edgardo (Charles Castronovo), leaving the two of them to face her brother’s wrath. Let’s get one thing straight – play this as written, and we’re heading into Taming of the Shrew levels of subservience. Lucia’s role would be to fall in love, be told she’s wrong, marry someone else, go mad and (because it’s opera) die. Mitchell injects this production with so much snarling, aggressive socialism that it explodes viscerally into something completely new and exciting.
Designer Vicki Mortimer has created a world of Gothic architecture and dimly lit chambers – it’s visually a feast. She and Mitchell, in an idea first seen as strange and then very compelling, have chosen to split the stage in two. One side contains the action and singing, the other deals with background stories, plots merely referred to in the libretto. As such, we see Lucia commit murder and this isn’t quick and contained – it’s bloody, keeps going wrong, part disgusting and part hilarious. The main storylines can be so dull sometimes (Enrico and Edgardo arranging a duel isn’t the most exciting of plots) that I love the addition of added material, especially as they can feed off the musicality of their counterparts. Mitchell also isn’t afraid to show us as much sex as she likes – Lucia’s passionate love letter to Edgardo reimagined as an implied orgasm, an entire duet as intercourse. Gratuitous? Maybe, but it’s also romantic and does add a layer of humanity away from all the gesticulating. Finally let’s talk about Mitchell’s most divisive decision: Lucia’s miscarriage. In short, it’s haunting, painful and enlightening. Take her pregnancy out of the equation, the motives for our own main character become vaguer. It’s gory but that’s real life, and I applaud the risk-taking.
Damrau is utterly spellbounding – there’s no other word for it. I can’t remember the last time I saw a musical performance that is this sublime. Not only does she encapsulate so much into one performance – rage, fear, humour, trauma, sexual dominance and tenderness – but her voice is out of this world. Damrau has the ability to hit insanely challenging notes whilst keeping them very understated, and as for the much talked-about madness scene? I sat there for the twenty minutes, my mouth open, my eyes and ears transfixed. There is nothing I can say to do it justice – you have to see her for yourself. Elsewhere, the men are manly: Tézier disgustingly revered, Castronovo charmingly disarming, and both excellent performances. Standing out is Kwangchul Youn as chaplain Biedbent. He is astute, respectful and you hang on every note he drops.
Katie Mitchell isn’t here to give you traditional theatre and we are all the better for her. Lucia di Lammermoor pulls no punches, and if you won’t accept anything other than classic opera, please don’t go and take up someone else’s seat. If you’ve got even the smallest part of an open mind, I implore you to see this explosive, erotic, dangerous production. You will never see opera in the same way again.
Lucia di Lammermoor is playing at the Royal Opera House until 19 May. For more information visit the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey