Lucia Di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House, London

Moor is less if it's Scott-free
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The Independent Culture

Not a kilt, not even a flash of tartan, to remind us that Sir Walter Scott's novel was the source of Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor. But I did spy a bottle of whisky at Lucia's wedding, so not quite all that is Scottish about this dramma tragico has disappeared. And the house of Lammermoor is still a cold, soulless and oppressive place.

The director Christof Loy and designer Herbert Murauer play on its isolation. An open stage is enveloped by a sweeping cyclorama, the blasted heathland overwhelmed by impressively lowering skies and, at one point, by understage lighting to give it a hellish look. A series of gantries decked out with fluorescent tubes bear down for the interiors (very World of Leather), but the overall impression is of an environment - within and without - laid prey to the elements. And the tiny figure of Lucia is every bit as vulnerable at home as she is in the wild and woolly outdoors.

It's a handsome-looking show, strongly blocked and dramatically lit (by Rheinhard Traub) to convey space and an unforgiving harshness. A lot of contrast, a lot of black and white; black leather (and riding whips) for cruelty, and Lucia's white wedding gown for purity. Red wine will inevitably spill over the bridal feast table.

That's as predictable as Lucia's descent into madness. But even so, we see what we hear in Donizetti's broody horns and sombre timpani. And Loy makes much of the crucial moment in the piece - the signing of the wedding contract ("my death warrant") - by exploiting the pause in the music and opening up a long, numbing silence on stage. "I go to the sacrifice," says Lucia, and as she makes the long walk to the table, scrutinised by her brother's lackeys and thugs, it's as if time is suspended and there may yet be some divine intervention before she seals her fate. The great sextet and finale ensue, heightened by that moment. The evening briefly blazed at this point. The conductor Evelino Pido got a grip.

Otherwise, there was a strong sense that everybody in the cast was not quite at the top of their game. The sonorous and usually so secure Anthony Michaels-Moore (Enrico) was slightly out of sorts and working hard to disguise the fact. Indeed, he was somewhat upstaged by the dashing John Relyea as the Calvinist chaplain Raimondo (a Vilar Young Artist of real presence and promise).

Lucia was played by Andrea Rost, for whom the role - with all its fiendish cadenzas and jaw-dropping top notes - is by now almost second nature. Unfortunately, that's how it sounded. Pyrotechnics were lined up like a series of required elements, and I never really felt engaged with the feelings driving them. Some of the beauty and purity has gone out of the sound, too.

Its sourness began to pall long before the scene that finally confirms Lucia a few drams short of a bottle - the mad scene. That arrived for the first time at Covent Garden in Donizetti's original scoring featuring the now obsolete glass harmonica. Instead of the customary duetting with pallid flute, this eerie, other-worldly sound wafted in to complement phrases such as "my blood turns to ice". It might have done the same for me had it not sounded quite so much like ET phoning home.

At least Marcelo Alvarez, playing Lucia's lover, Edgardo, didn't have to compete with it. What a star. Even though he was at something below his mellifluous best (a little throaty, as if harbouring a cold), there is no finer young tenor on the world stage. His innate sense of style is of the old school, the felicitous turn of phrase always taking precedence over the cheap thrill. The ardour and spontaneity of his singing was the perfect antidote to Rost's calculation. The climax of his final aria, held on the breath from hefty fortissimo to the finest-spun pianissimo, was alone worth the ticket price.

To 19 December (020-7304 4000)