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Opera review: Canadian Opera Company freights Lucia di Lammermoor with piles of subtext

By John Terauds on April 17, 2013

Brian Mulligan and Anna Christy are brilliant as brother and sister Lammermoors in the Canadian Opera Company production, which opened on Wednesday night (Michael Cooper photo).
Brian Mulligan and Anna Christy are brilliant as brother and sister Lammermoors in the Canadian Opera Company production, which opened on Wednesday night (Michael Cooper photo).

The Canadian Opera Company’s opening performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Four Seasons Centre on Wednesday night was excellently sung and expertly played. But it was annoying to witness all this greatness buried in heaping piles of subtext and stage business by director David Alden.

It had been nearly 10 years since the COC last presented this 1835 bel canto masterpiece by Gaetano Donizetti — with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano adapted from The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. Musically, it was worth the wait.

The largely young, American cast brought great voices, impressive technique and youthful energy to the stage.

Soprano Anna Christy was spectacular in the title role, which includes one of opera’s most famous mad scenes in the final act.

In this production, Christy’s Lucia is very much a little girl who has not had the opportunity to grow up before losing her mother and being left in the manipulative care of brother Enrico. He wrests her away from her true love, Edgardo, so that she can marry someone who will bring some money to the family table.

It’s an act that results in Lucia murdering her new husband in a fit of what we would now call temporary insanity. In fact, the whole lot of them end unhappily.

Baritone Brian Mulligan brought a menacing, not-quite-sane energy to the role of brother Enrico. Tenor Stephen Costello was strong, earnest and vocally dazzling as lover Edgardo. The supporting roles were also nicely rendered.

Sandra Horsts chorus was excellent in the two roles Alden had laid out for it: as live commentator as well as a cloud of ghostly witnesses from the past.

Veteran American conductor Stephen Lord made magic with Donizetti’s score, expertly shifting tempos and adding breaths in this rich dramatic stew.

The visual ideas in this production, rented from English National Opera, are sound: The Ashtons’ Scottish residence is a tumbledown affair, with the action re-set somewhere in the late Victorian era. The family’s decay is mirrored in everything we see — most of it in an arch black-and-white style that constantly reminded me of illustrations by the late Edward Gorey.

This work was nicely realised by set designer Charles Edwards and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Adam Silverman’s lighting is both murky and stark, heightening the whole Gothic suspense atmosphere.

But the way director David Alden has chosen to present the characters is heavy handed, producing the visual and dramatic equivalent of an over-cluttered Victorian parlour — except that the sets happen to be models of simplicity in this instance.

There is so much referencing of subtext and dead ancestors that the director appears to be assuming that no one is able to read the Surtitles that clearly translate every word sung on stage.

There are several ways in which a director can make an old opera more modern, including changing the setting. Despite the action having moved to the 19th century, Alden’s modern touch is giving every character and situation a psychological motivation so that no utterance of gesture is not by an asterisk containing some sort of psychoanalytical backstory.

We moderns need a category, classification and label for everything in our lives, whereas Donizetti and Cammarano were free to simply give us the results, carefully framed by music and text. They left the background, as sordid as it might conceivably be, up to each audience member’s imagination.

For me, that is far more exciting.

If you can overlook the directorial fussing, there is a lot to enjoy in this Lucia di Lammermoor, where the fine music produces as many chills as the story itself.

Performances continue to May 24. You’ll find further details here.

John Terauds

 

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