Mad for Lucia

Notes from Middle England by Chris Ramsden

Mad for Lucia

Buxton Festival has a very special relationship with Lucia di Lammermoor. Back in 1979, it gave the first ever complete performance in Britain of the Donizetti opera.

That seems a very strange thing to write these days, when the opera is the 21st most produced in the world.

The famous Lucia sextet at the end of the first act has appeared in everything from The Flintstones to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, while the mad scene has graced both the Luc Besson film The Fifth Element and Law and Order; Criminal Intent.

It has been the Buxton way to find some unsung opera which deserves better, and resurrect it – as with Lucia in 1979. That way, you get critical kudos, and you don’t have to compete with the great singers and opera houses of the world.

The decision to perform Lucia this year, then, when it is no longer a rare and unknown opera, seems to be something of a policy change.

It’s just finished a run at La Scala and the Royal Opera House is doing it next spring; the Met did it in March.

But it seemed to me that the Buxton production, in the capable hands of the festival’s artistic director, Stephen Barlow, and experienced director Stephen Unwin, had nothing to fear from the competition.

Judging by the costumes, we are in the 1940s. This immediately makes nonsense of the political background of the opera, which is set by Donizetti, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, in early 18th century Scotland. The doomed hero Edgardo says he’s going off to seek Scotland’s future in France. Not in 1940, he isn’t.

However, Buxton has jettisoned the Scottishness, kilts and all, and the opening, with a gang of men with guns in cheap suits, seems to be saying we’re in 19th century Sicily. That fits with the plethora of on-stage smoking (these days, as a reformed smoker, I always wonder if you get the part because you smoke or if you’re forced to learn how to smoke to get the part).

It also would explain why Scottish Calvinist minister Raimondo Bidabent (in the original) is here portrayed in full Roman Catholic priestly gear.

I can forgive anything, however, for some tremendous singing and great teamwork. The two most famous scenes are a triumph.

In the sextet, the singers are strung out across the stage, supported by little groups of the chorus re-arranging themselves behind them (some nice work from movement director Jenny Ogilvie). Their voices blend beautifully to create a choir within a chorus, full of impact and melodic variety.

The mad scene depends, of course, on the Lucia, Elin Pritchard. Here, she is following in the footsteps of the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, but she never puts a foot wrong (though perhaps she’s not quite bloody enough.) Her voice is accurate, mercurial while carefully graded throughout, never shrieking yet always full, and quite frankly mesmerising.

She looks the part of the wronged young sister, never goes over the top, and I don’t remember seeing elsewhere her controlled breakdown with a sexy edge; it seems psychologically convincing.  (Donizetti would know; he died in a madhouse from the effects of syphilis.)

The Northern Chamber Orchestra are as masterly as ever, though it’s a shame they couldn’t rustle up a glass harmonica (the instrument perfected by no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, and once banned in the belief it turned people mad — Donizetti’s original choice for the mad scene.) We got two flutes instead, and I can hardly complain since the NCO’s wind and brass have been one of the highlights of the performances.

Stephen Gadd as Lucia’s brother Enrico exudes the necessary air of menace through his penetrating baritone; so much so that he’s not altogether convincing when he realises what he’s done. Our hero, Lucia’s love Edgardo, is portrayed in a lovely light tenor by Adriano Graziani. Andrew Greenan’s solid and comforting bass makes him a convincing Raimondo.

This was a thrilling and satisfying night at the opera; I shall be interested to see if it really is a change of policy.

Perhaps La Bohème next?

Though that may not be necessary. This Thursday it’s back to normal with Buxton staging a concert performance of the rarely heard Louise, by Charpentier. It’s all about young love in 19th century Paris…. Does that sound familiar?