A sensational Nadine Sierra in Lucia di Lammermoor at the ROH

The periodic frustration one might feel with Katie Mitchell’s split stage concept for Donizetti’s romantic tragedy is a small price to pay for some stupendous singing. First unveiled in 2016, and now staged under revival director Robin Tebbutt, this gothic tale of feuding families based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel has an outstanding cast that will surely silence the naysayers of Vicki Mortimer’s distractingly divided set.

With its central partition, one’s attention is continually torn between bedroom or billiard room, crypt or closet, an initially unsettling visual experience where vital action may be unobserved if you are looking in the ‘wrong’ direction. It is a clever conceit to frame simultaneously the private domain of Lucia and the domestic turmoil occurring within the Ashton household, but do we really need to see so much mimed dressing and undressing between Lucia and her maid? Victorian undergarments may lend verisimilitude, but here the preoccupation with costume transformation outstays its welcome. Is this a director’s fixation for constant movement and eye-catching detail, or should we assume these diversions add to Lucia’s mental unravelling?

Nadine Sierra as Lucia

Yes, we should, because her breakdown is partly predicated on the intermittent presence of a ghostly girl (murdered by a jealous Ravenswood ancestor) who looms ominously alongside an apparition of Lucia’s own recently deceased mother. As one of Mitchell’s off-piste liberties with the text, it’s an imaginative leap that gradually assumes more relevance. If that isn’t enough to unhinge our heroine, Mitchell piles on a further cause for her mental decline with a bloody miscarriage from a three-month pregnancy. This graphic episode immediately follows Lucias’s brutal stabbing of the luckless Arturo (Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno), their wedding night ending abruptly, though not before she has restrained him with handcuffs and a blindfold. Giving Lucia a moment of control is a neat touch in an environment of male domination represented by her intimidating brother Enrico. But Mitchell asks us to believe Lucia’s miscarriage, rather than her loveless marriage, prompts her instability that ends with her dramatic wrist-slitting in her bath.

Regardless of any split stage reservations, or the proto-feminist slant Mitchell takes, the singing was the defining feature of this opening night and will be remembered long after any directorial misgivings. There were well-defined portrayals too and some convincing chemistry between the principals. Leading this outstanding cast was the American soprano Nadine Sierra (previously notable here as Adina in L’elisir d’amore), her diamond-bright and pitch perfect voice having an easy command of Donizetti’s coloratura. One quickly forgot the vocal gymnastics as she glided through the opening cavatina, its stratospheric notes sung with power and bell-like clarity. For the ‘mad scene’ she reined in her tone to reveal a spun line of remarkable delicacy, her fragile state of mind never in doubt, nor too her stage-filling sound whether at full throttle or a theatrical whisper, this last superbly matched by Katherine Baker’s flute obbligato. It wasn’t just her vocal assurance that captivated, it was her complete absorption of the role in all its emotional complexity, her hopes, despair and emotional shipwreck utterly compelling.

Xabier Anduaga as Edgardo

No less involving was her domineering brother Enrico taken by Polish baritone Artur Ruciński. Suitably large of character and voice, his mahogany-tinted voice came over with parade ground authority. Early on he tended to ‘park and bark’ but that was more the fault of the cramped space within the divided stage. His arch enemy Edgardo was stylishly sung by the Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga (making his house debut) who convincingly navigated his emotional upheavals, the farewell scene handsomely sung, but leaving the best for the two Act Three cavatinas which brought floor shaking applause.

Elsewhere, Rachael Lloyd as Lucia’s maid Alisa, Michael Gibson as Normanno, Insung Sim as Raimondo all made their mark, so too the excellent chorus despite singing too often in overcrowded spaces. In the pit, Giacomo Sagripanti generally favoured swift tempi and with an alert ear for balance. In short, sovereign performances lift this staging onto a whole new level.

David Truslove

Lucia di Lammermoor

Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Walter Scott

Cast and production staff:

Lucia – Nadine Sierra, Enrico Ashton – Artur Ruciński, Edgardo – Xabier Anduaga, Normanno – Michael Gibson, Alisa – Rachael Lloyd, Raimondo Bidebent – Insung Sim, Arturo Bucklaw – Andrés Presno; Director – Katie Mitchell, Revival Director – Robin Tebbutt, Designer – Vicki Mortimer, Lighting Designer – Jon Clark, Movement Director – Joseph Alford, Fight Directors – Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, Conductor – Giacomo Sagripanti, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.

19 April 2024

Top image: Artur Ruciński as Enrico, Nadine Sierra as Lucia, and Rachael Lloyd as Alisa

All photos © Camilla Greenwell courtesy of Royal Opera House