Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor****
English National Opera
The Coliseum, London WC2
For sheer gothic drama, David Alden’s take on Donizetti’s darkest opera is unbeatable. The opening sinister drum beats and the sight of the derelict Scottish mansion with voyeuristic onlookers in stovepipe hats peering through its windows signal the unfolding of a tragedy in which all the stops are pulled out – there’s even a glass harmonica for the mad scene.
Soprano Anna Christy is back in the title role for the first revival of Alden’s 2008 production. A doll-like figure, wearing short crinoline dress and long Alice-in-Wonderland hair her Lucia is every inch an abused child, bullied by her brother into submitting to a politically and financially expedient marriage. The opera, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, has been updated by Alden and designer Charles Edwards from the Scotland of the Jacobite uprisings to the 19th century at its most dourly Presbyterian.
Once it’s discovered she has fallen in love with her brother’s enemy, the romantically hirsute, kilted Edgardo, Laird of Ravenswood (Barry Banks), Lucia is bundled into a strait-jacket of a wedding dress and delivered instead to the bridegroom of her brother Enrico’s choice, foppish Arturo, played by Dwayne Jones in cream suit and blonde wig.
The final scene of devastation would seem uproariously over the top, if one wasn’t caught up in the tension. After furious Edgardo invades the wedding ceremony, denounces Lucia, and leaps from the window, there’s hardly a pause before another coup de theatre for the agog wedding guests. Lucia enters with a dagger and draws aside the curtain of an interior stage to reveal the blood-spattered corpse of her hapless bridegroom.
After first night uncertainty, when singers and orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, seemed at odds in the opening section, Christy gathered strength, building up to a spine-tingling mad scene. Her light, silver-toned soprano blends chillingly with the eerie notes of a glass harmonica, a weird instrument made up of revolving glass bowls of different sizes, similar to that used by the 18th century hypnotist Dr Mesmer to induce a receptive state in his subjects.
As Edgardo, tenor Barry Banks is in fine ringing voice, with his own dramatic mad scene shortly before Lucia’s. American baritone Brian Mulligan plays on the infantile neuroses of the desperate brother, willing to sacrifice his sister to save his own skin. Bass Clive Bayley rumbles resonantly as the hypocritical Chaplain and Sarah Pring is a suitably doom-ridden Alisa, Lucia’s companion.