'Lucia di Lammermoor' review or 'There are two sides to this story.'

Lucia Di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti
Royal Opera House, 7th April 2016
Written for Time Out 

The purists won’t like it. This is a resoundingly feminist take on Gaetano Donizetti’s romantic opera ‘Lucia Di Lammermoor’ from director Katie Mitchell. It isn’t perfect. Indeed, sometimes it feels like Mitchell is purposefully antagonising the audience – such as when she leaves a bath running loudly during Donizetti’s most-treasured numbers. But this is a bold and gutsy re-telling: one that gives Lucia her agency back, refuses to romanticize her death and enables a breathtaking performance from Diana Damrau in the title role.
Designer Vicki Mortimer has split the stage in two, so as to allow us a peak behind the scenes of Lucia’s life. The action has been relocated to the 1840s (the era the opera was composed); a time when men – bowler hats perched proudly on their heads – towered imperiously over ‘their’ women. The chorus has been dressed to appear all male and spend much of its time squeezed into a cramped half-stage, singing in lofty whispers (conductor Daniel Oren injects the ensemble numbers with chilling irony).
Damrau’s Lucia is not a tragic heroine: she is a real woman, flawed and fascinating and – in a smart twist – nearly 40. This is no wide-eyed innocent and, when Lucia meets with her lover Edgardo (a brooding Charles Castronovo), the two sing their swooning duet whilst simulating sex. Here is a sexually charged and mature Lucia, determined to be the master of her destiny.
The split stage device lends further depth to Damrua’s spell-binding performance. Lucia is tied into a corset – a soldier preparing for battle – as she prepares to a wed a man she does not love. We see her kill Arturo (it takes a few attempts) and even watch her miscarry. These twists will be a step too far for some traditionalists but, for me, they only add fuel to the flame of Damrau’s scorching performance. When Damrau hits the high notes, she might be orgasming, screaming or reaching to the heavens. And, when words fail her in the ‘mad scene’, it’s as if her soul has been ripped right out. Her silence, and all the lost love it contains, is deafening.