Reviewing in pandemic times can be a tricky business. When you know how much extra work has gone into a production by all artists and staff in this time of Covid-19 – quarantine for international artists, frequent testing, socially distanced staging, sanitisation, paperwork etc – it feels mean and even ungrateful to be critical of a performance. And yet, with the best will in the world (and I don’t doubt everyone’s commitment for a minute), it can happen that a production doesn’t quite gel.

Shingo Sudo (Enrico)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

This was the case with the revival of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Tokyo’s New National Theatre. This is their eighth opera production since the house reopened with audiences last autumn – no mean feat for these times. Because of the fluctuating situation with the entry of international artists, the recent Die Walküre and Rossignol/Iolanta were performed with a predominantly Japanese cast, but the relaxing of rules in the last few weeks meant that conductor Speranza Scappucci and singers Irina Lungu and Lawrence Brownlee could appear with 14-days quarantine.

This staging of Lucia by director Jean-Louis Grinda was first seen in Tokyo in 2017 with Olga Peretyatko and Ismael Jordi as the protagonists (this revival was directed by Yasuko Sawada). Set in Scotland of Walter Scott’s time (rather than the opera's 16th-century setting), it’s full of 19th-century Romanticism imagery – scenic moors, stormy coastlines, and Ashton’s manor house impressively decorated with stag heads. It’s all picturesque and inoffensive, but the problem is that because the director insists on realistic scenery for each scene (let alone each act), there are endless set changes, which deflates dramatic intensity. In addition to two intervals, there were two or three set change pauses.

Lawrence Brownlee (Edgardo)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Individually, the singers gave highly committed performances. The stand-out bel canto singing came from Brownlee, making his role debut as Edgardo. He sang with amazing suaveness and lyricism, and caused a frisson of excitement amongst the bel canto aficionados in the audience with his high E flat in the Act 1 duet, which not all tenors sing. His final aria “Tombe degli avi miei” was wonderfully affecting too, stealing the show from Lucia’s Mad Scene. It was a pity that elsewhere the orchestra sometimes overwhelmed his exquisite voice.

Lungu last appeared at NNTT as Violetta in La traviata in 2017 (which I reviewed favourably), but her lyric voice suits Violetta more than Lucia. High notes were precise but not effortless. Still, she is an intelligent and mature singer, and gave an elegant, controlled performance – although control may not be the desired effect in Lucia's famous Mad Scene. She didn’t seem as if she had lost her mind after killing her bridegroom Arturo (Hideki Matayoshi) on their wedding night (with a spear apparently!), but more like a women who had committed the act with resolution. She was not helped by the lacklustre flute solo that replaced the glass harmonica that Grinda had specified in his original production (understandably for distancing and space reasons), failing to capture the supernatural element of the scene.

Irina Lungu (Lucia)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

What caught my attention in the characterisation of Lucia, at least in the first act, was that she was dressed in masculine black attire, which seemed to show her a tormented, mature woman rather than the stereotypical naïve girl. Yet, I couldn’t see that theme being developed in the rest of the production. Neither did I feel strong emotional chemistry on stage between Lucia and Edgardo beyond superficial displays of affections, although musically they created beautiful harmony together. Perhaps it’s also due to the socially distanced staging which kept them well apart except for a few hugs when they weren’t singing. I guess in this age we just have to imagine these things in our minds.

Irina Lungu (Lucia) and Lawrence Brownlee (Edgardo)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

As Enrico, baritone Shingo Sudo showed both vocal and stage presence, not as a tyrannical brother, but desperate for the survival of the family. The rest of the Japanese cast was also fine, including clear-voiced Yuka Kobayashi as Alisa and sonorous bass Takayuki Ito as Raimondo.

In the pit was the super energetic Speranza Scappucci. She certainly set the tragic mood from the prelude, and throughout she took a dramatic approach, frequently whipping up the tempi and enthusiastically jumping on the podium. If, like me, you prefer your bel canto a little more nuanced and elegantly phrased, the playing could feel a bit bumpy. The Tokyo Philharmonic was not exactly on its best form either (with fluffs from several sections); whether because they hadn’t gelled with the conductor or from the lack of rehearsal time I’m not sure. Hopefully things will smooth out in the remaining performances.