FringeReview UK 2018
In Fulham Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor production in the Arcola Theatre’s Studio 2 directed by Sarah Hutchinson ‘after Jim Manganello’s production’ we’re in contemporary Scotland, in Ann Yates’ snappy suits and modern party-dress costumery. Lighting’s by Daniel Farr This version of the production is realized in Ben Woodward’s piano, Michael Thrift conducting. Till August 11th. Subsequent dates TBA.
How relevant is forced marriage today? This isn’t flagged loudly here and doesn’t need to be, though McMafia tailoring tells all in eloquent swirls.
Fulham Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor production has already won acclaim in its full cast and twelve-part orchestral reduction. At Grimeborn Festival Arcola’s Studio 2 – and not Studio 1 where The Rape of Lucretia did sport its original twelve-piece band – we have the cast but we’re down to Ben Woodward’s piano with Michael Thrift conducting: that makes it smaller than the piano trio for Smyth’s Boatswain’s Mate in the same space last week.
How much scheduling and choice are involved here isn’t clear, though it’s a pity considering the orchestral reduction was ready-made. Turnage’s Greek is currently enjoying a thrilling revival in Studio 1. What we have here though is a first-class production, losing very little vocal bloom and gaining far more intimacy. The incredible power of voices in such a space is overwhelming, to be found virtually nowhere else in London.
Based on Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is one of his two best-known operas, from 1832 (L’elisir d’amore dates from 1843 shortly before Donzietti’s collapse). Updated here by director Sarah Hutchinson ‘after Jim Manganello’s production’ with clean lighting by Daniel Farr we’re in contemporary Scotland, in Ann Yates’ snappy suits and modern party-dress costumery. There’s covered chairs and a red chaise-longue, a couple of low grey platforms doing service as gravestone plinths and wedding promontories. It all works seamlessly, down to pass-the-parcel where wedding gifts are handed about gingerly like time-bombs and blood-soaked shifts contrast with the red, white, gold lamé and blue splattered around in dresses. Snappiest of all is the crystalline lucidity of a small surtitle display above the piano, positioned where all can read clearly.
Contemporary, though references to the death of William III and accession of Mary alone (yes, the libretto does invert that!) suggest about 1695. Basically Ashley Mercer’s Enrico Ashton – a kind of Jacobite – needs to marry off sister Lucia to John Wood’s Arturo Bucklaw, of the monarch’s party, to win protection and stave off the executioner’s axe. Honour and loyalty is desperately invoked and Mercer’s vocal hectoring is nicely steely, with enough lyricism to suggest strengths elsewhere. His red-tied nastiness reaches its apotheosis in challenging Edgardo over Ravenswood tombs. Mercer suggests a callow quiver of desperation, sexism and ruthless ambition about to unravel. Mercer cleverly allows a fleck of pity round the snarl.
But then the upwardly-murdering Ashtons haven’t been very nice, butchering the Ravenswoods’ chief and one of his sons. The other’s lurking, and – of course – falling in love with Lucia. This is Alberto Sousa’s Edgardo, on stunning form with spit-sharp diction and an ardent heady tenor that fills from the diaphragm and takes you by the throat.
Maltese soprano Nicola Said’s Lucia is also outstanding. That’s a word too easily bandied about but either of these leads would grace an opera house anywhere. It isn’t just Said’s purity and effortless coloratura right up to the top notes in the mad scene. It’s Said’s capacity to inflect the expressive meaning on a turn of word, phrase or darkening intensity. Like all those on stage – but far more exposed – Said inhabits her role from joyful anticipation through despair, devastated betrayal, self-betrayal and of course unhinged vocal acrobatics.
There’s several plot-points that justify the end. A kind of blood-pact between the lovers that means no other man can possess Lucia, a promise she means to keep. And Lucia’s own sighting of ghosts near her mother’s grave also showing a girl murdered by a jealous lover. Things are unhinging into the next world right from the start.
Rebekah Jones as loyal servant Alisa makes a fine foil, colouring in the antiphonal protests to Lucia’s ardent raptures. There’s solid brevity from John Wood’s luckless suitor Arturo, played with affecting gormlessness then rank insensitivity; Wood suggests Arturo almost deserves his fate.
More needle-toothed is the military advisor Normanno, the man whom it transpires sparked off the feud. James Bowers spits him out like a yuppie rodent, enacting a shrug that almost humps into a crouch as he seeks out Edgardo. Bowers is lean, mean, and a degree more incising than Mercer’s Ashton who suggests gleams of affection.
Bass Simon Grange’s religious Raimondo, making this accusation against Bowers’ Normanno, is given less to do initially but replaces Normanno as moral centre in the Ashton household. His gravitas, even in one so comparatively youthful (Grange looks dashing for a religious type) delivers in condemnatory phrases, reaching its apogee in his dealing with Normanno, after being hapless messenger for Lucia’s actions.
The chorus are very slightly restricted but they’re a remarkable group, including soloists – Valerie Ketter for instance also sang the title role in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, though not last week’s production. Sue Low, Alice Pearson, Kasia Andrzejewska and Ken Lewis are soloists who put in fizzingly brief cameo roles here. One who doesn’t yet whose vocal clarity and power shines out is Patrizia Dina. Her voice often anchors choral moments.
Above all though this is Said’s and Sousa’s moment. Sousa’s impressive in suggesting wounds ready to break open at any moment. When he confronts Said after the early rapturous, sexy duetting, the two almost come together over her wedding cake. That’s before he remembers himself and rejects her. Like Said he’s a naturally ardent lover unhinged by events. In a world of UK forced marriages this doesn’t so much speak as tear.
Said’s injuries too seem buried, but more obliquely. Her mother’s death and present love don’t quite explain her premonitions. Both lovers hurt into the damage they look for. But how they do it! Their voices blend rapturously, timbres consummating love in the ways their bodies cannot. No wonder Edgardo closes the opera with his ‘forgive me’. You’ll have to see that.
Thrift is both visible and active throughout, keeping the performance taut enough to take off another five minutes, so it clocks in at two hours twenty-five including a twenty-minute interval. This is a stunning pocket-sized opera-house quality Lucia. In either its lean-band or piano versions, you won’t find a better-sung, more affecting Donizetti this year.