Gaetano DONIZETTI – Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)
(Libretto by Salvadore Canmmarano after Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor”
Conductor: Tobias Ringborg
Wellington Opera Chorus
Director: Sara Brodie
Cast: Normanno (Jordan Fonoti-Fulmaono)
Enrico (Phillip Rhodes)
Raimondo (Samson Setu)
Lucia (Emma Pearson)
Alisa (Hannah Ashford-Beck)
Edgaro (Oliver Sewell)
Arturo (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fulmaono
Assistant Director: Waitahi Aniwaniwa McGee
Set Design: Marc McIntyre
Costume Design: Tony DeGoldi
Lighting Design: Rowan McShane
Chorusmaster: Michael Vinten
Bridget Carpenter – Stage Director
Theresa May Adams – Production Director
St.James Theatre, Wellington,
Saturday, 25th March, 2023
Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” is one of the most famous of all musical stage creations on account of a single sequence in the work, the memorable “Mad Scene” which takes place midway through Act Three. It’s an on-stage happening whose haunting, chilling impact can’t help but dominate the average audience member’s memory and overall impression of the entire opera. On this count alone, Wellington Opera’s latest production at the capital’s resplendent St.James Theatre over a week of performances would have almost certainly satisfied and thrilled every audience member, from the wide-eyed opera-beginner to the most avid opera-goer alike.
The scene depicts in effect the aftermath of an enforced marriage, that of the opera’s heroine, Lucia (Emma Pearson), to a man she does not love, Arturo (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono) – at the height of the post-nuptial celebrations among the wedding-guests, the new bride appears at the doorway of the banqueting hall covered with the blood of the husband she has just murdered in their chamber with a knife. She is in a delirium, imagining that she can see the man she really loves waiting for her, so she can join him at the altar, before reliving her rejection by him and her feelings of imminent death, and finally telling him she will wait for him in Heaven. The onlookers are awe-struck, while those directly responsible for enforcing the marriage are overcome with grief and guilt. No operatic scene in the entire repertoire surpasses this one in depth of feeling; and this performance certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of its sheer impact, visual, aural and emotional.
Part of what gives the scene such poignancy is the near-visceral involvement of everybody else in the story with Lucia’s situation – in fact even her lover, Edgaro (Oliver Sewell), who so brutally rejected her in a previous scene is a “presence” here, foremost in her delirium and to the exclusion of everybody else in her mind, apart from a brief reference to the ghostly fountain-phantom of the story’s Act One and the “cruel brother” of Act Two. Director Sara Brodie had obviously marshalled her forces here to a nicety, a kind of acme of dramatic potency, the peak of which was expressed by soprano Emma Pearson’s masterly performance as the deranged Lucia (I still remember the latter’s similarly heart-rending, if differently constituted “Gilda” from a “Rigoletto” some years ago at the St.James with NZ Opera). Her “Lucia” was one whose overall focus and care for detail across the spectrum of characterisation was near-impeccable (as was the orchestral playing which via conductor Thomas Ringborg’s direction and Karen Batten’s flute-playing gave us constant pleasure) – and if Pearson’s most stratospheric top notes lacked the ultimate amplitude, the sense of a character abandoning all caution and reaching for the heights was nevertheless thrilling.
Though I thought nowhere else in the production so surely reached those same heights, a certain determined unanimity of purpose played its part in the stage action scaling those lower slopes that led up to the opera’s aforementioned climax. I noted a mention in one of the programme’s foreword presentations that this production was set in “our own country’s Scottish-influenced Southland”, but couldn’t for the life of me equate any on-stage happening with such a location. And the set struck me as being a fairly utilitarian affair, a quality which straddled various of the story locations – castle grounds, a fountain, various rooms, a great hall, ruins, a graveyard – and with different lighting providing various contrasts, though again, hardly evoking any kinds of specific proximity to places such as Gore, Winton or Balclutha.
The supporting characters fit all the more readily into these all-purpose scenarios, with both the already-mentioned Oliver Sewell’s Edgaro, and the character of his chief adversary, Lucy’s brother Enrico (Philip Rhodes) creating suitably strong and purposeful figures central to the storyline. I thought Sewell brought an appealing tenderness to his character’s love for Lucia, making an effective contrast with his hostility towards the latter’s family, in particular Enrico, and adding the extra ballast of his fury at believing that Lucia had spurned him for another! Central to this Machiavellian plot is, of course, Enrico, with Philip Rhodes brilliantly amalgamating his character’s desperation at the state of the family fortunes with his hatred of Edgaro and his marriage-designs upon Lucia! What fertile soil in which to sow the musical seeds of an operatic plot!
Just occasionally I found Sewell’s stage movements a trifle unmotivated, wanting him to move less at times and let his voice go more with the music to express the emotions and motivations of the character and his face “engage” his audience more readily – there wasn’t much menace between him and Philip Rhodes’ Enrico in the marriage contract confrontation scene, just noise and bluster, though the first Act Three scene in the Wolf‘s Crag ruins generated rather more deadly intent. As with all the characters, their individual focus seemed to sharpen more noticeably as the evening proceeded.
The singers in smaller roles fulfilled their functions more than adequately, as above, seeming to me to “fill out” their personas as the drama evolved – I came to really like Samson Setu’s Raimondo, especially his stirring warning to the guests in the Banquet Hall concerning the imminent and shocking arrival of Lucia. Because I wasn’t sitting especially close to the action I confused the two brothers Jordan (Normanno) and Emmanuel (Arturo) Fonoti Fuimaono when the latter arrived on stage as Lucia’s prospective husband in the opera’s second act! Each brother sang so splendidly in his role, I doubt whether either would be offended at this mix-up on my part. Another reliable vocal presence throughout, and an imposing figure in the drama was Hannah Ashford-Beck who sang the role of Alisa, Lucia’s nurse.
The chorus was another group whose contribution for me “grew” in intensity throughout the evening – they survived a moment of shaky ensemble early on, getting ahead of the conductor’s beat for a measure or two, at “Come vinti da stanchezza” (during their “reporting back” to Enrico on catching sight of an intruder in the grounds, in the opening scene). Easily their best singing and stage presence was during the famous “Mad Scene”, where their support of the singer and their contribution to the situation couldn’t be faulted.
I wasn’t at all surprised at the excellence of Orchestra Wellington’s response to the music of the drama throughout the evening, with conductor Tobias Ringborg getting playing of a high class, throughout, by turns dramatic, lyrical and atmospheric (I’ve already mentioned Karen Batten’s flute solos) – however, I was pleasantly surprised to see NZ String Quartet violinist Monique Lapins’s name as the orchestra leader on this occasion (what one might term luxury substitution – with, of course, no reflection upon the equally wonderful Amalia Hall, I hasten to emphasise!)….
In conclusion, congratulations to director Sara Brodie, in particular for being the presiding genius in enabling we opera-goers to experience first-hand that unforgettable Act Three scene, the description of which I began this review with – a precious recollection!