Thursday, April 13, 2017

Soaked in an eerie, blood-red beauty, a foreboding Lucia di Lammermoor opens in Beijing

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Marco Caria as Enrico
In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, the image of a bloodstained nightgown goes hand in hand with opera's most famous mad scene, in which a young bride forced into marriage is driven to despair and murder on her wedding night. For optimum effect, the blood is rarely spared in the theatre.

But in this first-time coproduction between Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Mariinsky Theatre of Russia, directed and designed by Yannis Kokkos, the blood had metaphorically already ran. Awash with scarlet and cardinal from interiors to costumes, Kokkos's formidably dark production is soaked in a foreboding and painterly eerie blood-red beauty.

In a work based on Sir Walter Scott's Scottish-set 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, only the smallest hint of tartan splashes the plush period-inspired costumes. Juxtaposed breathtakingly against numerous abstracted geometric sets that evoke grandeur through simplicity, prominence is given to a tumultuous, ever changing sky as part of Vinicio Cheli's immensely moody lighting design.

Then there are references to the deer hunt. Symbolising tenderness tempered with strength, a large statue of a deer commands the opening scene and appears at different times in different forms. In a painted backdrop to Lucia's Mad Scene, the deer is struggling for survival - able to be brought down in seconds by a pack of dogs in a hunt - much as Lucia herself is.

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Stefano Secco as Edgardo
Already battered by the death of her mother, Lucia finds strength in love, though one that is at odds with family expectations. She is betrayed by her brother and, believing she is betrayed by her lover, is asphyxiated by circumstance and patriarchal norms. The total staged effect gives palpability to Lucia's precipitous state and achieves a visual poetry comfortable at one with the tragedy. Kokkos reveals himself as a master of dramatic interpretation, of rich aesthetic composition and emotively structured direction.

Two casts alternated in the principal roles across just four nights at the smaller opera theatre of the Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre while the NCPA undergoes stage maintenance and renovation. I attended the third performance in which Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva sang the title role as she did on opening night (alternating with Zhang Liping). Gimadieva's more winsome and angelic Lucia was mildly problematic but she took the Mad Scene compellingly by the horns, noticeably exciting the mostly Chinese audience who otherwise thought nothing of scrolling through their mobile devices during the performance. Gimadieva required an ounce more power to combat the drama and a little more fluidity across the coloratura but a superfine crystal top and striking flexibility of voice with underlying emotional intent made for a beguiling and graceful Lucia.

It was the men who came out victorious in this male-dominated world. Demonstratively rich and expressive in voice and acting, Stefano Secco and Marco Caria were outstanding as Lucia's lover Edgardo and her brother Enrico respectively. High-heat tenor Secco brought superb clarity to his fiercely passionate and gallant Edgardo. Together with Gimadieva the pair harmonised convincingly and, as Edgardo nears his own end in the final scene, Secco digs even deeper to give compelling gravitas.

Marco Caria as Enrico, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Shi Lina as Alisa
Caria put his impressive dusky and smouldering baritone to virulent use as Enrico with acting that always added tension. Sergey Artamonov was an authoritative, pious Raimondo. Wang Chong gave pronounced strength and bright arrow-sharp capability in voice with the stature to match Lucia's betrothed, Lord Arturo and smaller roles were filled soundly with Kou Jing as Normanno and Shi Lin as Alisa. The large 70-plus chorus sang with dutiful care and acted in great sympathetic accord.

 I had issue, however, with the pit. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was scheduled to take the baton but cancelled due to personal reasons. Israeli conductor Daniel Oren was the replacement. Despite excellent musicianship, Oren's tendency to over-egg the tempi and volume didn't always pay off, giving the feeling that the music was combatively toying with the stage.

Minor reservations aside on the musical front, the evocative theatricality of Kokkos's Lucia di Lammermoor adds intelligent and dramatic three-dimensional weight to Donizetti's work. It opens to St Petersburg audiences later in the year, hopefully to zero tolerance on smartphone use.

Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre
Until 12th April

Production photos: Ling Feng

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