Hard to imagine, but true: since the 1835 première of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples, the opera has never gone out of fashion. Later in the 19th century, Richard Wagner’s wife, Cosima, cited him as saying that this music “enabled the heart to speak, and it was all suffering and lament”. Then as now, that pathos of its striking bel canto arias and rousing melodies continues to draw audiences all over the world. Indeed, over the years, Lucia di Lammermoor has been staged and recorded more often than all of Donizetti’s some 70 other operas combined. That said, its success largely depends on the vocal and dramatic abilities of any given production’s leading lady. 

Rosa Feola (Lucia) © Sandra Then
Rosa Feola (Lucia)
© Sandra Then

Crafted after a tale by Sir Walter Scott, Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto sets the work in Scotland. Lord Enrico Ashton wants his sister, Lucia, to strengthen a political alliance by marrying Arturo Bucklaw. As ill-fortune would have it, however, Lucia’s in love with Edgardo, her family’s arch enemy. Edgardo wants to reveal their affection to her Lucia’s brother to set things straight, but she discourages him, whereupon an unfortunate chain of events – a forged letter, misguided fears, and terrifically bad timing – catapult the lovers into tragedy and their ultimate deaths. 

For this Theater Basel production, director Olivier Py underscored this emotive kaleidoscope of events with unparalleled creativity and imagination. Even in the very first scene, a mute black-clad and distinctively oily devil-figure spies upon – and tries to seduce – Lucia, injecting the production with a heightened, if threatening, sensuality. Less ghastly, but equally well choreographed are the four faun-like dancers who lithely run an ominous thread throughout. 

Rosa Feola (Lucia) and Fabián Lara (Edgardo) © Sandra Then
Rosa Feola (Lucia) and Fabián Lara (Edgardo)
© Sandra Then

Pierre-André Weitz’s stage and costume designs also deserve accolades. Barring the solid stone façade used as a stage “curtain”, Weitz disavows the historical Scottish and castle connection, and opens up a much broader, more compelling visual vocabulary instead. The trials of decision-making and suggestion of deceit, for example, are found in the shadow-play of a circulating lantern whose Biedermeier motifs seem an invitation to childlike play. By contrast, the carousel of mutant beasts, skeletons and modified body parts that rotate centre-stage as the drama transpires are as dread-inspiring as they are otherworldly. Further, the large two-door upstage cupboard nicely serves as a hiding place, site of magical conversion, an unfinished story, something like an entrance to the opera’s own Narnia. And the great shower of thick ash that falls over the entire stage like a shock wave in Act 3 feels like grief turned into substance, which heightens the drama markedly.

Under Giampaolo Bisanti’s able musical direction, the Sinfonieorchester Basel and the expanded Chor Theater Basel gave flawless performances. Donizetti hallmarked Lucia by using harmonies and selecting instruments to represent certain moods and psychological states. The most obvious example of this is in the legendary Mad Scene, wherein Lucia suffers an emotional and mental collapse after the supposed loss of her Edgardo, whom – she has been falsely informed – has married another. Later, having himself been deceived and unable to live without Lucia, Edgardo also kills himself, in this production by the bright bang of a self-inflicted bullet. Mexican tenor Fabián Larahad kept an eagle eye on the conductor at the start of the opera, somewhat comprising his acting skills, but he warmed considerably as the evening progressed, making his final dilemma much more three-dimensional.

Ernesto Petti (Enrico) and Rosa Feola (Lucia) © Sandra Then
Ernesto Petti (Enrico) and Rosa Feola (Lucia)
© Sandra Then

In the other roles, the superb Italian baritone Ernesto Petti brought living colour to the role of Lucia’s brother, Enrico Ashton, even charging the production in Act 3 with his bare torso and the muscle behind his vocal delivery. As Raimondo Bidebent, bass-baritone Tassos Apostolou performed confidently, although the timbre of his voice showed only varied slightly. As the suave, prospective husband Bucklaw, tenor Hyunjai Marco Lee gave his minor role good heft, and had the advantage of an unexpected persuasion: his character in this production is gay. Karl-Heinz Brandt’s Normanno was somewhat agitated and overwrought, which may well have been the director’s intention, but were attributes that somewhat strained the voice. As Lucia’s maid, the graceful Ena Pongrac sang a crisp and clear Alisa.

Without question, however, Rosa Feola’s performance as Lucia carried the production. Over almost three hours, her voice never faltered, despite the role’s major physical demands and the rash sequence of conflicting psychologies she had to portray: from deepest affection, to resignation and supreme disillusionment. Maria Callas said that a Lucia must “always find the meaning of a trill or a scale that will justify a feeling of happiness, anxiety, sadness.” Those very same words clearly found resonance in Basel.