Where some see a femininity of victimhood and weakness at play, Shawna Lucey, director of Kansas City Lyric Opera’s successful production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, sees primarily feminine strength, a strength which turns murderous and mad, under the systemic oppression of the powerful males in Lucia’s world – a brother, a chaplain, a captain of the guard. By the time the hapless husband is killed, Lucia is drastically more sinned against than sinning. Given Lucey’s clear directional thrust, Lucia herself, Sarah Coburn, was a triumph, scoring highly in both singing and acting. Her persona, from the start, was plausible – girlish, spontaneous, strong, with just that heightened sensibility and imagination which betoken future extremes. Later, she carried off the celebrated mad scene with fabulously unsettling feyness – touches of Ophelia – as she fantasises the wedding she never had. There were moments where one saw the same Lucia underneath it all – playfully walking on a bench in Act 1, and then climbing up the banquet bench and festive table in Act 2, her black cloak soon to reveal the infamously bloodied wedding dress. And her voice, most importantly, was glorious throughout: easy, fluid, lithe, gracious in tone, and technically spot on – not a fault to find really. Her dialogue with the flute was lovely.

Sarah Coburn (Lucia) © Karli Cadel
Sarah Coburn (Lucia)
© Karli Cadel

Evan LeRoy Johnson as her star-cross'd lover, Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood, was a fitting match: their chemistry was good, his tenor powerful and passionately intoned. Enrico, Lucia's dastardly brother, was played not unsympathetically by Troy Cook – a man himself under pressure of circumstance, and eventually confronted with his own abject responsibility for the drama. His voice was somewhat uneven – coming through very full sometimes, and at other times, lacking heft. I liked Lucia’s bloodied hands stretching out to mark, in turn, the faces of brother, chaplain – a full-voiced if rather unsettlingly pitched Adam Lau), and guard, Kevin Thomas Smith. Not one of them was guilt free. Besides, the gesture carried on the hunting metaphor of first blood. They all must share in the first blood she has shed. As a group of principals, they meshed well together, and the famous sextet was compellingly sung.

The staging was uniformly excellent, with its iron grey walls, its dried flowered arches, parched for lack of water, and mellow candlelight of sconces and candelabra. Sometimes, it is not about pushing boundaries outwards (there were kilts and ball-gowns and hunting trophies to satisfy the most traditional of viewers and nothing in the least unconventional), but rather pushing down deeper into the symbolic possibilities of the opera.

Sarah Coburn (Lucia) and Evan LeRoy Johnson (Edgardo) © Karli Cadel
Sarah Coburn (Lucia) and Evan LeRoy Johnson (Edgardo)
© Karli Cadel

The walls, covered with stag head trophies, spoke of the ritual cruelties of the laird’s life as well as the pride of tradition; death was omnipresent at the start, and its connection with a certain traditional understanding of honour and male behaviour. It also set us thinking about the dichotomy (or continuum) of hunter and hunted, killer and victim, a resonance further brought out in the magnificent wedding feast scene, where the guests donned masks of animals typically hunted. You get one role but you play at being the other (continuum not dichotomy). That scene was heavily reminiscent of an Old Masters’ still-life painting, the half-eaten, interrupted banquet, cut across by the macabre bridal appearance, luxury bleeding into decadence bleeding into death. It was off-colour beautiful and appalling at the same time; and the choreography of the chorus at this point, a powerful artistic statement.

Troy Cook (Enrico) © Karli Cadel
Troy Cook (Enrico)
© Karli Cadel

Powerful also was the portrait gallery wall of Enrico’s study, a tense space vertically laden with ancestral portraits calling to mind the burden of the past, looming over the action and the characters, showing us how little independence they have from any of it. The black veil over the dead mother’s portrait (the whole was set in the Victorian period) was an excellent touch; Enrico twitches it first, surmising its power, and later unveils it, knowing that this will be the trump card, if anything is, in pressurising his sister into a dynastically ‘necessary’ but loveless marriage. Philip Witcomb and Michael James Clark take credit for scene design and exquisite lighting which, when not mellow, was shockingly bright on those ambivalent white garments of innocence. The orchestra, under the baton of Carlo Montanaro, played well, with verve and pace; there was a particularly lovely harp solo in Act 1. An enjoyable, exciting production in short, and a fine interpretation of Lucia

****1