Lucia di Lammermoor, Coliseum, London<br />The English Concert, Wigmore Hall, London

Buckets of blood and a child bride to cry for
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The Independent Culture

Once seen as the epitome of Romantic sensibility, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor has long been a vocal freak-show. Be she sturdy or skinny, a subtle actress or a ham, the soprano in the title role will know that every ear in the house will be tuned to her mad scene, as will the tenor that plays her lover and the baritone that plays her brother. Titillated by the vertiginous tessitura and delirious melodic distortions of that one scene, we care little for her story, though we should, we really should. And in David Alden's disturbing, dream-like production for English National Opera, performed to a new edition of the score under Paul Daniel, we finally do.

Designed by Charles Edwards and lit by Adam Silverman, Ravenswood Castle is a damp-stained shell. The furniture has been sold, the windows boarded up. Only a cot, a desk and a cupboard full of debts remain as the creditors press in at the walls, climbing through to surround Mark Stone's Enrico, who clasps daguerreotypes of his frowning ancestors to his chest. Clad in the pantaloons and short crinoline of a Victorian child, Lucia (Anna Christy) is his last asset: a virgin bride to be sold to the highest bidder, though, as we see from Alden's brutal staging of their Act II duet, Enrico is the first to assault Lucia's virginity, roughly thrusting his fingers between her legs.

Torn between idealistic love for Edgardo (Barry Banks), supernatural fantasies, religious devotion, and the reality of forced marriage, Christy's doll-like Lucia dominates the drama. Is this the only time her brother has assaulted her? We don't know. First brittle as china then limp as rags, her toes turned in, her arms held out from her ribs, she carefully charts Lucia's journey from dissociation to delusion; singing with a preternaturally sweet, clear, smooth tone that mirrors the delicacy of the harp and the hypnotic plaint of the glass harmonica. It's a stand-out performance of mental disintegration, but one that happens within a stand-out ensemble. For Alden has given Stone and Banks equal complexity.

Moral collapse is everywhere: in the desperation of Enrico, in Edgardo's jealousy, in the silent applause of the mesmerised wedding guests as they watch the blood-soaked Lucia sing her cabaletta. From the funeral pomp of the brass and timpani to the swooning glass harmonica, an instrument once believed to cause insanity among its largely female players, the score too seems to offer a foretaste of Donizetti's own madness. Yet Daniel's fastidious phrasing ensures a beautifully disciplined orchestral performance which is matched by consummately stylish, polished singing from the principals. One might blanch at the buckets of stage blood. But the combined effect of bold theatricality, excellent casting, detailed characterisation, a revised score and pristine musicianship makes Lucia ENO's most compelling production for a very long time.

So from the crazed misery of a child bride to the blissful logic of the baroque concerto and Maurice Steger's dazzling debut performance with Laurence Cummings and The English Concert. Now the world's leading recorder virtuoso, Steger delivered what must be the fastest ever account of Telemann's Suite in A minor for treble recorder and strings. Ravishingly phrased, with heady swirls from Cummings' harpsichord, saucily swung notes inégales, piquant decorations, Steger's prestissimo performance adumbrated interpretative sophistication and technical show-offery, bringing broad smiles to the faces of a packed Wigmore Hall audience in this and the Sammartini Concerto in F. Equally dynamic were Vivaldi's Concerto for Strings in G minor (RV 156), Allison McGillivray's soulful reading of Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in G (RV 415), and the two Bach items: the Sinfonia from Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (BWV 42) and the Suite in D (BWV 1069). Gorgeous.

'Lucia di Lammermoor' (0871 911 0200) to 8 March

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