Tuesday, 9 February 2010


I went down to London the other night to see the ENO's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Melanie. I think I can say without fear of contradiction from her that it was the very worst opera I've ever seen; it gave a new meaning to the phrase sourly uttered by whichever Victoria Wood character it was, 'We left at the overture.'

Now, I'd never seen any Donizetti, but I have seen a decent amount of opera and my tastes are catholic, from Monteverdi to Adams. But this was terrible. Apalling. It's a bad sign when you think after three minutes, 'God, this is dull', and an even worse one when the tragic drama of love and brooding madness has you in absolute stitches. The (to my ear) awful, trundling badness of the music was a shock as well: every aria, each of which seemed to go on for ever, was like a foursquare old-fashioned hymn tune, minimally decorated with trills. It also had that staple of bad opera directing everywhere, where people fling themselves against walls and wardrobes to indicate they are feeling really deep, like, emotions. An even worse stagecraft staple was the pointless, slow-motion milling about of the chorus in a kind of glassy, unseeing Brownian motion, grinding around the stage in search of something to do.

The first scene involves a tedious and long-winded description of the background to the plot, which is in fact very straightforward: girl loves mortal enemy of her wicked brother, and secretly swears to marry him; mortal enemy has to leave for a while, during which absence girl is deceived by wicked brother into thinking mortal enemy is unfaithful; brokenhearted, she is persuaded to marry wicked brother's nasty choice of husband. Mortal enemy comes back during wedding, curses poor gulled girl unfairly for faithlessness (instead of stupidity, which would be quite justified), girl goes mad and kills nasty husband. To my mind, this simple enough, sub-Lloyd-Webber scenario did not necessitate the immensely clunky dialogue of the first scene, which Melanie and I parodied in a text-message exchange later that night:

(Me, imitating Enrico, the wicked brother, who is tearing his hair out)
'O! Fie upon it! How shall I recover my faded patrimony and the wrack of all my ambitions, if my sister Lucia will not agree to marry Ruggiero, the brother of Seraphina, lady-in-waiting to the late Queen? But, alas! Has he not spent the last decade disguised as Dondolo, the simple-minded illegitimate son of Pedro, the wicked clergyman whose lands abutt our own?! O, me miserable! Shame, Death, Ruin!'

(Melanie, continuing)
'O woe, for sorrow! For having been dispossessed by the wicked wrong-doing of the fraudulent Belshazzaro, upon the vagaries of an ingrate sister depend all my weighty dignity and pride, bequeathed me at my father's tragic fall from the hunting mare the prophecy warned him never to mount! Praise God we have convinced her by lies of the death of her lover at the hands of pirates, secretly in our pay! Give me the lying letter!'

It would have been better in Italian, because in English it was absurd. Also, no one in the entire vaguely 19th century production seemed to like using the door: if they could possibly climb in through the window, they did. This reached its proposterous height when Edgardo, cursing poor Lucia for her faithlessness, wrapped the white tablecloth around his shoulders like a cape, in the manner of a small boy pretending to be a superhero. Draping it around himself, he then climbed out of the window. At this point, Mel and I were both convulsed with helpless laughter, and could face no more; the lure of the famously beautiful glass-harmonica-accompanied mad-scene was nothing to the prospect of a drink and a Giardiniera at Pizza Express over the road.


Mark Berry said...

Donizetti really is this bad; and that is one of his 'better' works... I'd have thought it would put any vaguely sentient being off opera for life, so well done ENO for mounting two of his 'works' within a month! Translation, as you say, does not help: nineteenth-century Italian opera, bad enough in itself, ends up sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan. You and Melanie have my sympathy.

Bo said...

Mark: I'm pleased that it's not just me being an utter philistine, and that my general impression that this was just *shite* has your musicological imprimatur.

How's things? Well, I hope.

Suem said...

At least you got a laugh out of it.

Mark Berry said...

Not at all: in my not-so-humble opinion, Donizetti is just about the lowest of the low. I cannot imagine what anyone gets out of such nonsense.

Yes, I'm fine thanks. Pretty busy, which I could moan about, but then I suppose I should be...

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