Nowadays, we'd be calling Childline. Lucia of Lammermoor is subject to so much mental and physical abuse in David Alden's characteristically intense staging that madness and/or death is not just inevitable but actually welcome. When we first catch sight of her, it is in a tiny cot marooned at the centre of a vast, empty room. It has been gutted of its contents, its life and soul, save for this one cot, which we imagine might contain a newborn baby to bring hope to this place of death and decay. But then up pops a startled young girl, waking as if from a nightmare. Lucia. An Alice forever banished from Wonderland.
Lammermoor is an abandoned place given over to the past, fearful of the future. A cupboard full of debts is all that remains of its once prosperous past. Alden and his set designer Charles Edwards proffer only the grubby remnants of its former splendour: the locals peer through its windows like the ghosts of its ancestors looking to reclaim it. Or even climb through like prospective squatters. Everything is monochrome, like the portraits of the once great and good that haunt this production. They look on – expectantly.
Within this oppressive environment, full of Alden's signature gestures – soiled white walls, spectral Fritz Langian shadows, and lowering chorus blockings – Lucia has created her own refuge, a fantasy of her own making. But her fantasy is the ecstasy of dying for love. For her opening aria, which recalls a crime of passion from times past, Alden has her perched on the edge of what looks to be a tiny curtained stage. This is where she plays out her tales of love and death, and where, in a chilling Alden coup, we will discover her later, bloodied and seemingly sane at the start of her so-called "mad scene".
Lucia is sung by the young American Anna Christy, in this, ENO's first-ever staging of Donizetti's dramatic masterpiece, and though plainly not at full capacity following a chest infection (which, coincidentally, also silenced Clive Bayley's demented chaplain Raimondo, sung from the wings by Paul Whelan, who takes over later in the run), she was brave and unstinting. Her power stems from her amazingly youthful appearance and a voice that threatens to tear apart her tiny frame.
It is a measure of her fluid technique that she doesn't draw attention to the pyrotechnics but rather turns them into almost casual expressions of rapture, alarm or horror. In the scene with her bully of a brother, Enrico (a sonorous Mark Stone), where she literally becomes one of his toys – his plaything – and the shadow of incest extends to bondage, it is his roving hand that elicits the stratospheric top note. And very ugly it is too.
So, of course, is Lucia's final degradation. But as the eerie warbling of glass harmonica shadows her distracted voice, Alden springs a surprise and pulls back the curtain on the tiny stage to reveal to all assembled (for Lucia now has an audience) the husband that she has just butchered. Then, poignantly, Alden has her nestle in his arms, thinking him to be her absent lover Edgardo.
Barry Banks (wild-haired and kilted) is Edgardo, singing with terrific assurance and no small amount of stylishness. His is a voice that finds sustenance in the high tessitura, and points up just how skilfully Donizetti succeeded in musicalising his star-crossed lovers.
Back in the pit was the former ENO music director Paul Daniel, underlining the forceful imperative of Donizetti's dark and fertile score. The fantastic Act II finale, rising as it does out of the great sextet prefacing Lucia's arranged marrige, was thrillingly headlong. Manhandled into her wedding gown by the odious Enrico, Lucia is served up more like the wedding breakfast than the bride, an open-throated chorus effectively devouring her. Very Alden. And very compelling.
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