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The Met’s production of Lucia moves the action from Scotland in the early 1700s to Scotland in the mid-1800s. This has the effect of causing some aspects of the story to not make a whole hell of a lot of sense. For example, Enrico forces Lucia to marry Arturo because he is afraid of getting the axe unless he politically rehabilitates himself, but the sort of political feuding that this fear comes from makes much more sense for the 1600s or very early 1700s than it does for, say, 1835. Being beheaded for political crimes was not a primary concern of Victorian-era Scottish noblemen.
However. There is a sense in which the anachronism works. Despite being set in the early 1700s, this opera is very much a creature of its 19th-century time. It’s got all the hallmarks of Romantic-era gothic fiction: ghosts, mad women (if Lucia had not died, Enrico would probably have locked her up in the attic), doomed love and plenty of blood. The Met’s production picks up on this quality and places it front and center.
In Act I, Lucia and Alisa don’t just speak about the ghost of the murdered woman. The ghost appears, and Lucia seems to be both aware and not aware of her presence – the ghost reaches out her hand, and they are almost dancing with one another for a moment. The ghost reappears for a moment in Enrico’s study at the beginning of Act II – and at the end of Act III, as Edgardo prepares to stab himself, she appears again, but this time the ghost is the (already dead) Lucia herself. This opera is not a love story; it’s a ghost story.
The interiors of the Ashton house are a slightly eerie mixture of burgundy and arsenic green, and in Act II, when Raimondo tells the shocked wedding guests of Arturo’s death, the rear of the stage disappears to reveal the full moon, which hangs there for Lucia’s mad scene. In this context, Enrico’s fear of being beheaded makes a weird kind of sense: it’s sort of a bizarre and very gory physical counterpart to his sister going mad. The Victorian setting is a way of pushing this “gothic fiction” quality as well as emphasizing, more than perhaps an early 18th-century setting would, the social and emotional constraints under which someone like Lucia would be operating.
But how does it sound? As I said, I sometimes find it hard to take Donizetti’s music super-seriously. It’s often pretty and atmospheric, but there’s also a sameness to it – I’ve heard enough of it to be able to anticipate a “bada-da-da-da-da-DAH” (with a chord change upward on DAH) whenever the tension gets ratcheted up, and at times the music doesn’t seem to have much to do with the drama. For example, in Act III, when Edgardo and Enrico are having a confrontation and one of them threatens to run the other one through, the music seems so happy and light!
But even if Donizetti is not Verdi or Strauss, the music is performed very well here. Edgardo is Piotr Beczala (can someone tell me how his last name is pronounced? I had been phonetically thinking “beck-zala” but during the intro section where we have Natalie Dessay giving a little background to the performance, she says something closer to “besh-zawa” that I didn’t quite catch) filling in for I think Rolando Villazon, and I certainly did not mind the change. Other than a rather thin-sounding Normanno (Michael Myers), the quality of the performances was high, even the smaller roles like Alisa (Michaela Martens).
The star of the show was, naturally, Anna Netrebko as Lucia. Netrebko is in the enviable position of eliciting applause, as she does here in Act I, merely for appearing on the stage. In this case she deserves it. Her voice sounds both rich and precise (parts of that mad scene, like the duet sequence with the flute, would be rendered pure torture to listen to if the intonation was off) and if the acting is more high drama than deep subtlety – Netrebko sometimes strikes me as kind of a blunt object, dramatically: often stunning, but with any given performance, once is usually enough – it doesn’t really matter, because it’s of a piece with the general style of the music and the work as a whole.