Among the great mad scenes available to an operatic soprano, Lucia di Lammermoor is a classic. The parade of blood-stained divas staggering across stages to Donizetti's eerie, twirling melody includes some of the greatest in history, notably Callas herself. Setting a high bar for later interpreters, this has also endowed the work – and its title role – with a cult status which ensures the opera’s place in the repertoire despite its dramatic flaws, and the significant believability problem its central theme, forced marriage leading to murderous insanity, poses for a contemporary audience. “You can only understand the reaction if you create the pressure,” director Stephen Unwin explains in his friendly and urbane pre-performance talk at Buxton.

Unwin sets Lucia in the post-World War 2 Italy of La Dolce Vita, feeling that a Mafia /Camorra treatment would be too obvious: it’s a smoothly watchable reading, but the many subtleties of Unwin’s approach sadly don’t build a world in which Lucia’s sacrifice and destruction is believable. If performing this opera in an Italian setting and eschewing the medieval or Renaissance, the Mafia is the clearest way to make it work: simple, admittedly, but strong. As it is, we have Italian businessmen who carry guns, but take so long to ferret them out of their jacket pockets (a consistent problem, especially for Enrico) that the sense of threat is minimal: amateur gangsters at best. The crucial sense of social pressure doesn’t come across as clearly as Unwin intends, and the story feels more like a local business deal gone wrong than a dynastic alliance with political implications of a national scale. Perhaps Visconti’s Il Gattopardo could have been a better model. 

However, Jonathan Fensom’s conservative designs do fit Unwin’s vision beautifully. Huge stage curtains, painted with classical Italian landscapes recalling early Turner, form an extremely traditional backdrop, which is given a little oxygen by occasional translucence, dawn, moonlight or dusk, lit by Malcolm Rippeth. When half-closed, the curtains imply the painted walls of Enrico’s palazzo, or the fluted curves of a marble pillar at the Ravenswood tomb. There is so much smoking on stage that much of the action takes place under a grey cloud – even indoors in Enrico’s study, smoke billows above him as he bullies Lucia.

Elin Pritchard sang Lucia with superb clarity and projection: her mad scene was well worth the wait, the lyricism of her soprano matched by her expressiveness, portraying Lucia in a storm of brilliant confusion, her vivid memories and emotions fighting across her overthrown mind. Elsewhere, Pritchard contrasted self-possessed stillness with girlish abandon as she described her love to her maid Alisa (Natalie Sinnott).

Adriano Graziani sounded magnificent as her beloved Edgardo of Ravenswood, his tenor showing a characteristically Italian sob at its highest notes. Graziani conjured good stage chemistry with Pritchard in their love scene, but died more in companionable sorrow than anger at Lucia’s death, not quite hitting the full spectrum of Edgardo’s experiences. Stephen Gadd, similarly, was wonderful as Lucia’s deeply clubbable brother Enrico, but didn’t always quite convey the emotional colour needed from his character as the plot develops.

As Normanno, Richard Roberts was weak and wheedling, his reedy tenor not always filling his music well. Bonaventura Bottone was a colourless Arturo, but it’s a role which never gains much traction in the piece, with only the short wedding scene in which to make his mark. Still, we were left unconvinced of Arturo’s power or importance. Andrew Greenan had plenty of chances to establish Raimondo (Lucia’s chaplain and tutor), but signally failed to take any of them. Greenan’s sonorous bass and impressive appearance promised much, but his acting was so restrained (or deadpan) that it was very hard to detect whether he was angry, conniving, pleased or guilty: all emotions indicated by his words seemed numb on arrival on stage. The only moment Greenan really showed his power was excommunicating Normanno, when finally he became animated enough for his music, words and actions to make real sense, but it came too late in an already lengthy evening.

Lucia di Lammermoor is not the shortest opera, but it’s a long time since I have seen blank pauses for scene-changing, some of which seemed unnecessary: that very excommunication scene could easily have taken place in front of a dropped curtain, allowing the scene change to get started behind, instead of occupying the full stage and causing yet further delay. The increasing pauses not only disrupt the flow of the opera, but steadily punctured the small amount of dramatic momentum created from scene to scene, leaving it feeling very long indeed. Meanwhile, Lucia barely glanced at the fateful letter before giving up on Edgardo; sometimes, a pause would have helped. So, we had strong principal singing and a flourishing sound from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, and a fine mad scene; but the dramatic impulsion dissipated all the time.