Review: Lucia di Lammermoor (Royal Opera House)

Katie Mitchell’s feminist take on Donizetti’s tragic opera returns in its first revival

Lisette Oropesa as Lucia and Charles Castronovo as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (ROH)
Lisette Oropesa as Lucia and Charles Castronovo as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (ROH)
© Stephen Cummiskey

Gone are the hilarious bloodbath, humping rumpy-pumpy, tinkling water feature and flatfooted conducting of its 2016 premiere (review still available here). Instead we have a recalibrated return in which the headstrong director Katie Mitchell has heeded counsel and come up with a much-improved Lucia di Lammermoor.

It isn't perfect by any means, and the decision to have Lucia tipped into madness by a bloody miscarriage is still tasteless, but at least most of the ideas now work.

The talking point on this occasion is unlikely to be designer Vicki Mortimer‘s split-screen sets, even though these still prompt Mitchell to the worst kind of show-'n'-tell, with visual action on one side of the stage later mansplained on the other. Instead, it’s the star-making turn by soprano Lisette Oropesa that’s the revival’s carry-out.

Having rescued Glyndebourne’s Don Pasquale from mediocrity this summer, the Cuban-American soprano now elevates another Donizetti opera to the heights. Oropesa’s subtle vibrato, fast, light and allied to a silvery-bright timbre, was a constant delight, and her account of the mad scene (accompanied this time by a solo flute rather than glass harmonica obbligato) had a transcendent beauty.

What it wasn’t, however, was harrowing. Oropesa’s delivery fell into the bel canto trap of one-mood-fits-all as she sang with unchanging vocal loveliness and left the task of projecting emotional resonance to her face and body. This young artist is a work in progress, then, but she’s still a thrilling discovery.

'Something approaching greatness'

Sir Walter Scott’s novel of brotherly power and arranged marriage has been given an 1840s setting that suits Mitchell’s preoccupation with pitting bad men against put-upon women (and in the current climate who can blame her?). Patriarchal to a fault, the gentlemen in their black frock coats resemble living monoliths against which no vulnerable woman could hope to prevail. The unfair sex does not emerge from this opera with any credit at all, since even Lucia’s lover Edgardo is ready to assume the worst of his beloved. In Mitchell’s baleful depiction, masculinity is a tough watch.

Tenor Charles Castronovo has braved the misandry for another stab at Edgardo, and this time his ravishing tenor finds an ideal counterpart in Oropesa. Their first-act duet, "Ah! Verrano a te sull’aure", shone like a good deed in a wicked world.

Christopher Maltman‘s baritone has filled out impressively and on this evidence he now inhabits Italianate repertoire to the manner born. No more Papagenos for him, I fancy; instead he sank into Enrico’s villainy with convincing depth and a broadened dramatic timbre that was close to ideal.

Italian bass Michele Pertusi found complexity in the morally compromised Raimondo, while Andrew Tortise (Normanno) and Konu Kim (the doomed Arturo) both scored well; but it’s Rachel Lloyd as Alisa, Lucia’s loyal companion, who impressed in particular. In a role that involves a great deal of stage time but little vocal input she convinced thoroughly. Mitchell uses Lloyd to expand the female contingent in this male-oriented opera, a move she extends to a couple of ghosts – one too many, I’d say – who hover into Lucia’s thoughts from time to time.

What a pleasure it was to hear this opera conducted in a way that painted its colours and explored its dimensions. Michele Mariotti‘s loving account with the ROH Orchestra raised Lucia di Lammermoor from the level of a lurid potboiler to something approaching greatness. Which is where it belongs.

Lucia di Lammermoor continues in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 27 November.