From Lucia di Lammermoor, at the Met.
Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera
Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera about a woman whose sense of herself splinters into shards. In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, located in a hallucinatory present, that shattering takes place not just on the stage but on many screens, that fractured habitat where so many people now try to survive. In a no-longer-fresh technique to multiply points of view, an onstage camera crew follows the characters around, sending a live feed to a screen above their heads, so that we get billboard-size close-ups of Lucia’s laptop, her phone, her ritual of primping in the bathroom mirror, even her make-out sessions. We watch herself watching herself, a process that can’t end well.
She’s not alone in this virtual infinity mirror. In a wedding scene, we simultaneously observe the crowd from a distance and mingle with the guests who, because of an irritating delay in the video feed, sing slightly out of sync with themselves. By the end, the camera has become a mind reader. As a desperate Lucia staggers through her final breakdown, a prerecorded video shows us the sentimental fantasy unspooling in her imagination — at which point, I wanted to yell Turn that thing off! We don’t need another portal to her brain, since the libretto and the music already tell us what she’s thinking.
But this is a production that never passes up an opportunity to overexplain. As an urbane Italian composer of the 1830s, Gaetano Donizetti found an inexhaustible source of obsessive passions, vindictiveness, and craving for violence in the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott. For the Australian director Simon Stone, the modern equivalent of that wild and unknowable north is a Rust Belt town betrayed by global capitalism, the sort of place political reporters throng in election years to interview white men in baseball caps at the local diner. Stone’s troubled heartland is a collection of threadbare tropes, but it’s a busy place, promisingly abuzz with resentments. Set designer Lizzie Clachan packs the stage with the attributes of a run-down midwestern Anytown: a convenience store (with a sign that reads “MART”), a grungy motel, a storefront church, a pharmacy, a pawn shop, a liquor store (“LIQ”), a house with a yard, a tag-filled wall, a hydroelectric dam, and a drive-in movie theater (showing, of all unlikely entertainments, the 1947 Bob Hope drama My Favorite Brunette). Stone doles these sites out one by one, as if we were driving around this godforsaken city looking for something to do. Eventually, they cluster together, fragments of a civilization at loose ends.
In the first act we encounter the town, the protagonist, and the motif of blood, which fit together nicely. Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón’s costumes are a mixture of down-market dress-up and extra-schlumpy, clothes that help the singers stick to the rubbery body language of the 2020s. Nadine Sierra looks and sounds as if she’s been singing the title role her whole life. She struts across the stage in a short puffy jacket and distressed jeans, climbs a fire escape, takes selfies, has a tryst in a truck cab with her pariah boyfriend Edgardo, gets a methadone fix, and shouts down her loser brother, Enrico. She’s an avatar of doomed defiance. Blood makes an early appearance, oozing from the belly of a video ghost and previewing a festival of splatter that would do Quentin Tarantino proud.
Inevitably, the seams between the original and the concept end up showing — the subtitles translate the libretto’s florid Italian into no-frills American, and the antagonists Enrico and Edgardo don’t just take it outside; they challenge each other to a duel at first light. More seriously, the director undercuts both the music and his own inventiveness with a terror of letting the energy flag. It’s not easy to negotiate the disjunction between opera speed and Hollywood pacing. In an aria, as in real life, expressing discontent to anyone who will listen is a time-consuming business. It doesn’t jibe well with an aesthetic of quick cuts and shifting perspectives. Stone deals with the problem by having the sets go slowly spinning in overlapping orbits. He also sends the characters on long walks around the stage to distract from the fact that they keep singing at length about the same damn thing.
At first, all this activity is fun; eventually, it grows tiresome. When Enrico climbs onto Edgardo’s pickup truck to deliver an aria, we understand it as a move of belligerent disrespect. Then Lucia does the same (because she’s crazy) and so does Edgardo (he’s sad). You get the feeling that if the opera supplied a few more principal characters, Stone would have ordered them up there, too.
In the second act, the production threatens to go off the rails. Or rather, since this is car country (a point made by several auto carcasses cluttering up the stage), it rumbles across a yellow line and drifts dangerously close to a ditch. Enrico, in debt to a gangster, has put his sister up as collateral; the guests are invited and the cake baked before Lucia has been informed of the plan to marry her off to the man in the pink suit. Pretty soon, the tragedy of one young woman’s oppression and psychosis morphs into slapstick comedy, with guests brawling in the background all through the act’s final sextet. (The cake, of course, winds up on someone’s face.)
Fortunately, conductor Riccardo Frizza and the cast rescue the staging from total confusion. Donizetti’s music accelerates, brakes, and swerves so often through its emotional terrain that a clumsy hand can make it a lurching ride, but Frizza handles the score with clarity and deftness. The singers are game for Stone’s antics, but not at the expense of the music. Whether they’re staggering drunkenly, flashing a knife, or rolling around in a gory erotic fantasy, the elegance of their singing never wavers. Even in combat camo or with his own gun to his head, tenor Javier Camarena sings Edgardo as a sweet-voiced softie, firmly in control of his tone and confident of his supple phrasing. There’s no compromise with concept here. Donizetti wrote music of extraordinary beauty, and Camarena delivers it with its loveliness intact. Artur Rucinski imbues Enrico with villainous panache, treating him like a character from a Mafia movie, and Matthew Rose makes Raimondo an unctuously effective family priest.
But the glue holding the whole contraption together is Sierra, whose Lucia evolves from bombshell to breakdown without sacrificing so much as a grace note. It’s not an easy balance; too much exquisiteness can make her unraveling hard to buy. But Sierra’s mad-scene performance suggests that losing her mind gains her technique — that all those roulades and scales and trills and appoggiaturas flow from the busted dam of her psyche. Her voice, haloed in the eerie whistle of a glass harmonica, is an expression of rapture and fragility filtered through an inexorable discipline. The screen renders the world as chaos and falsehood; music, even the music of madness, can never stop making sense.
Lucia di Lammermoor is at the Metropolitan Opera through May 21.