Everything about the opening scene of this production set me on edge: centre-stage a hybrid bed on wheels, part crib part hospital, and propped up on it, peering through the bars, a young female, presumably Lucia. The set is a high-walled room, dingy white, plaster stained, paper peeling, with a short door and elongated windows suggesting a surreal Alice-in-Wonderland distortion. When Victorian gentlemen start coming in through the windows, you know you are in a work of the imagination, where passions will push the protagonists over the edge of pretended sanity into their underlying madness. I must admit resisting some of David Alden’s more barking ideas like Enrico playing with his sister Lucia’s doll, then groping her, then dressing her like a doll for her wedding. But resistance proved futile. Donizetti’s glorious bel canto score, attentively conducted by Stephen Lord for a cast of impeccable voices led by Anna Christy, sucessfully edged Lucia’s dark night into the radiant and happy realm of high art.
The drift of this 2008 David Alden production, debuting somewhat redesigned at the COC in Toronto, though well-known, deserves refreshing. Alden has shifted the setting from late 1600s to Victorian times in order to engage more available patriarchal stereotypes, blatantly emphasized by ubiquitous photographs of male ancestors. The predominantly black and grey tones of sets (Charles Edwards) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) suggest that bloodless lack of vitality is one thing the warring families have in common. Lucia before her wedding is costumed and directed to behave like a child in a nursery. Her brother Enrico (baritone Brian Mulligan) is directed to show beneath unscrupulous, sadomasochistic brother behaviour, some seriously twisted, incestuous and paedophilic inclinations. The cold, dim lighting (Adam Silverman, redesigned by Andrew Cutbush) starkly contrasts with the warm, rich music, and cuts its own edge, casting on the bare walls long eloquent finger shadows, the language of lonely children. Lucia’s victimization is communicated variously by having her tied to the bedposts, propped by her brother with her arms extended like a crucified puppet, or arranged on the wedding-feast dining-table like a sacrificial offering. I usually prefer subtle to crude, but in this case, Alden’s crude is so over-the-top outrageous, that I allowed the pleasure of it to edge in, and that is a good feeling.
If I reflect on other operas that employ harsh music to express the torment of outraged women, say Strauss’ Elektra, it is a wonder how the lyric beauty of Donizetti’s score works here. But it does. It is the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitterness go down; it cures despair even where the libretto offers no ray of hope saving the thought that everyone is better off among the angels in some mythical heaven than they were here on earth.
Anna Christy’s “Lucia-as-Alice” was compelling for the teenage impulsiveness of the moves she willed and the postures she was put into against her will. Christy’s notes were all there and the coloratura was breathtaking. If not for the glory of her singing, the vividness of the suffering she portrayed would have been repulsive.
Brian Mulligan’s chocolatey baritone imparts a sturdiness to the role of Lucia’s unfeeling brother, Enrico, as he slides into the trough of creepiness where Alden has him wallowing. Enrico is the character you love to hate. Raimondo, the family chaplain who is always around, in good scenes and in bad, like the family dog, counselling obedience and also offering sympathy when obedience leads to tragedy, is Oren Gradus, a strong-voiced bass. It is strangely reassuring to hear Raimondo’s pitches resonating below Enrico’s, as if to say fumbling neutrality comes from deeper in our natures than viciousness.
The three tenors included Adam Luther, his light instrument adjusted well to the role of Enrico’s snitch who brings to light Lucia’s fatal romance with her family’s sworn enemy, Edgardo. Kilted and sword-bearing Stephen Costello brings fine energy, excellent timbre and a flexible bel canto voice capable of great agility to his role as Edgardo, Lucia’s ardent, faithful-but-fickle Highlander lover. His final aria (before his ostensible suicide) flared with passion. I did not enjoy how Alden ended Edgardo, by having Enrico sit him up and snap his neck. Nathaniel Peak was outstanding as the bartered bridegroom, Arturo, as much for his size and tailoring as for his solid intonation and stylish delivery in a role that was largely ceremonial, requiring him to make an opulent entrance, then sit ostentatiously in a chair among the guests until he is revealed framed, dead and gory in his bed. Not to forget the warm and charming presence of Sasha Djihanian as Alisa, Lucia's companion. The chorus was strong at every point, and stunningly manoeuvred, especially in preparation for the ‘Mad Scene’, screening with their mass the entrance of bloody Lucia so that when they spread out she appears among them as if from out of nowhere.
The COC orchestra, including glass harmonica and harp soloists, sounded so constantly well in this hall, they functioned like another character. If there is such a thing as an opera that is a real deal, this is it.