Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lucia di Lammermoor

17 September 2017

There’s been a few grumblings around recently about operas being set in museums. Chicago’s new Elektra, if one’s to trust the reviews, is a case in point. Closer to the land of Walter Scott’s Lammermoor, one thinks back to John Fulljames’s faintly ridiculous Harris Tweed-sponsored Donna del Lago at Covent Garden. I saw a few more examples mentioned on Twitter, too.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The Deutsche Oper’s Lucia, however, is a genuine museum piece. It dates from 1980, but Filippo Sanjust’s designs seem already to have been deliberately old-fashioned even then. Tromp l’oeil curtains frame the stage, and a drop curtain features an illustration of a waify stray with windswept hair and white dress rushing across some barren landscape.

The stage itself for the first two scenes is pretty rudimentary: a backdrop with a distant castle, a couple of unimpressive two-dimensional outcrops of rock, one featuring a static waterfall. Things get a little more concrete in subsequent scenes as we get into some impressive-looking interiors, but there’s no escaping the essential fustiness of it all. 

The costumes continue the trend, with flouncy frocks and ringlets for the ladies and, for the men, austere period outfits whose manifold details, I suspect, could be named only by historians of dress. (There were hints of tartan, but at least no anachronistic kilts.)

The edition used, too, was a period piece, with the loss of both the Enrico-Edgardo scene at the start of Act 3 (we went straight into the ‘D’immenso giubilo’ chorus) and a final scene that began with ‘Tombe degli avi miei’. Fans of the glass harmonica will have been a little disappointed, too, since Lucia’s mad scene was accompanied by the then traditional flute (excellently played, though, by Robert Lerch). Ivan Repušić conducted straightforwardly and dutifully, and certainly could have done more to enliven the recits.

Then again, with direction at the basic end of the spectrum – it was notable how Pretty Yende’s Lucia manoeuvred herself to prime centre-stage position for the start of ‘Quando repito in estasi’ – this was Donizetti less as drama than as bel canto showcase. It was also a showcase for the 2011 edition of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition: Yende and her Edgardo, René Barbera, shared the top prize that year. 

Happily they both delivered the goods. Yende’s voice is pearly and seductive, bright but never strident, and beautifully controlled. It also extends with apparent ease right to the very top of the range – she tossed in a few top notes beyond the standard embellishments. Dramatically she doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths, and I wondered even if her irrepressible likability as a performer and the inherent sunny optimism of the voice actually detracted from the tragedy. I suspect that a strong directorial hand in a less somnambulant production would have helped a great deal in that regard, though.

Barbera was similarly left to deliver a stock dramatic performance. But it’s a pleasingly clean voice, light in both colour and size, and he sang with real elegance, focus and lovely legato. His great final scene was beautifully delivered – with some fine work from the orchestral soloists. There was an impressive, suitably unstinting Enrico from Noel Bouley, a Deutsche Oper ensemble member with a notably stentorian top range. Riccardo Zanellato deserves a mention, too, for his consoling tones as Raimondo, about the only even half-decent male character in the whole show.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The last production I saw of this work had been Katie Mitchell’s for the Royal Opera House in London, a staging I disliked but which was at least interesting for attempting to give the opera’s heroine some agency, to make her more than simply a passive victim. This production, though, presents her as just that, in pretty frocks that only pick up the merest hint of blood in the dainty off-stage murder of her husband. 

It underlines the irony, too, that the character’s passivity was traditionally contrasted with editions of the score that placed her musically centre-stage, at the expense, particularly, of Edgardo. As such, though, this museum piece does at least offer an interesting glimpse into the operatic past. It also just let its cast get on with it, offering a great showcase for some outstanding singers of the present – and future.