Director Tatjana Gürbaca’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor was greatly anticipated at Zurich Opera, and it featured a flurry of action and props. Some of the distinguished cast of singers already had sterling reputations here in the house, Moreover, the production marked the first time that the attending audience could rise in number to 100, a sign that better times are coming.

Irina Lungu (Lucia)
© Herwig Prammer

Klaus Grünberg's set was a beige-coloured collection of crossed, upright flats – each one made up of stacked, round-edged rectangular elements – that rotated repeatedly throughout. The chorus was a gifted, if forever undulating, body, whose movements seemed somewhat arbitrary, but that consistently gave boisterous musical backing.

Yet the performance of this Donizetti classic had several shortcomings. First among them came in Act 1, wherein celebrated soprano Irina Lungu (Lucia), overlaid her coloratura with a heavy vibrato that fuzzed her delivery. Over the course of the second and third acts, to her credit, she tightened that considerably, and her Lucia overall was compelling. The great test of the Mad Scene also passed with a fine mark of conviction.

Irina Lungu (Lucia) and Piotr Beczała (Edgardo)
© Herwig Prammer

Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, was handsomely sung by tenor Piotr Beczała, who is a great favourite of the Zurich audience. He gave a compelling and high-volume portrayal of the suitor who is passed over when she is forced into a “better” marriage by Lucia’s brother, Enrico, who sees wealthy Arturo Bucklaw (Andrew Owens) as the far better bridegroom: a ticket to relieving the family’s considerable debt. Given that devious plan, the conniving Enrico is easy to dislike, devising and pursuing his ideas at the expense of Lucia’s happiness. That said, baritone Massimo Cavalletti sang the role with confidence and aplomb.

Massimo Cavalletti (Enrico) and Piotr Beczała (Edgardo)
© Herwig Prammer

In the long-awaited drama of Act 3, Gürbaca has Lungu's Lucia follow in the footsteps of the catalogue of great divas in the role. Mid-act, she appears drenched in the blood of her innocent bridegroom, whom she has murdered on their wedding night, marking what is perhaps the shortest duration of marital bliss in opera history. The staging here was perplexing, though, and perhaps best defined as “anything goes”: bedsteads without mattresses and bounties of clutter. A throwback in history saw the bride as a child downstage, seated with her curious, younger brother in tow, as if all restraints on real chronology had been released. By contrast, a full-grown, bloodied Lucia – clearly on the other side of sanity – sang convincingly in the gruesome scene, while a Shaman-like bull tiptoed among the characters in her midst, alluding to her once having been rescued from such an animal by Edgardo. But was the audience expected to know this? And what, if anything, does the bull really bring to the production?

Irina Lungu (Lucia) and Andrew Owens (Arturo)
© Herwig Prammer

Given the sheer nervous activity around this scene it was easier, perhaps, to commiserate with Lucia’s insanity, and to relish the rich orchestral accompaniment all the more. Under conductor Speranza Scappucci’s fine baton, the score’s delivery was a technical marvel. The pandemic has certainly spurred ingenuity: the house’s orchestral contributions were piped in from a site that’s a kilometre up the hill. But objectively speaking, no fine chorus, handful of polished leads, nor countless number of set rotations on a stage heaped with domestic detritus or furious movement make a new reference point for Lucia di Lammermoor. Nor does it do Donizetti's compelling music any real favours. To call the production an odd bird is an understatement. It would better be called – literally – a bloody mess.