Simon Stone’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Met

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Since Lucia of Lammermoor, at the Met.
Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera

Lucia of Lammermoor is an opera about a woman whose sense of herself is shattered. In the new Metropolitan Opera production, set in a hallucinatory present, this shattering occurs not just on the stage but on many screens, that fractured habitat where so many now try to survive. In a no longer fresh technique for multiplying viewpoints, an on-stage camera crew follows the characters, sending a live feed to a screen above their heads, so we get close-ups of the size of a bulletin board on Lucia’s laptop, her phone, her ritual of primping herself in the bathroom mirror, even her makeup sessions. We watch each other, a process that cannot end well.

She is not alone in this infinite virtual mirror. In a wedding scene, we simultaneously watch the crowd from a distance and mingle with guests who, due to an irritating delay in the video feed, are singing slightly out of step with themselves. In the end, the camera became a mind reader. As a desperate Lucia staggers into her final depression, a pre-recorded video shows us the sentimental fantasy playing out in her imagination – at that moment I wanted to scream Turn that thing off! We don’t need another portal to her brain, since the libretto and the music already tell us what she’s thinking.

But it’s a production that never misses an opportunity to overexplain. As a courtly Italian composer of the 1830s, Gaetano Donizetti found an inexhaustible source of obsessive passions, vindictiveness and lust for violence in the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott. For Australian director Simon Stone, the modern equivalent of this wild, unknowable north is a Rust Belt town betrayed by global capitalism, the kind of place political journalists flock to during election years to interview white men wearing baseball caps at the local restaurant. Stone’s Troubled Heart is a collection of worn tropes, but it’s a busy, promising place abuzz with resentment. Set designer Lizzie Clachan packs the scene with the trappings of a ramshackle Anytown Midwest: a convenience store (with a sign that reads “MART”), a filthy motel, a storefront church, a drug store, a pawn shop, a grocery store, a liquor (“LIQ”), a house with a yard, a beacon-filled wall, a hydroelectric dam and a drive-in movie theater (showing, of all unlikely entertainment, the 1947 drama Bob Hope My favorite brunette). Stone distributes these sites one by one, as if we were driving around this lost city in search of something to do. Eventually, they regroup, fragments of an idle civilization.

In the first act, we meet the city, the protagonist and the blood motif, which fit together well. Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón’s costumes are a mix of cheap and extra-schlumpy disguises, clothes that help the singers stick to the rubbery body language of the 2020s. Nadine Sierra looks and sounds like she sang the part -title all his life. She struts onstage in a cropped puffy jacket and distressed jeans, scales a fire escape, takes selfies, has a cab date with her outcast boyfriend Edgardo, gets a dose of methadone and yells at her brother loser, Enrico. She is a doomed challenge avatar. Blood makes an early appearance, seeping from a video ghost’s belly and previewing a splatter fest that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.

Inevitably, the seams between the original and the concept eventually show – the subtitles translate the libretto’s flowery Italian into no-frills American, and antagonists Enrico and Edgardo don’t just pull it out; they challenge each other to a duel at first light. More seriously, the director undermines both the music and his own inventiveness with a dread of letting the energy falter. It is not easy to negotiate the disjunction between the speed of opera and the rhythm of Hollywood. In an aria, as in real life, expressing your displeasure to anyone who will listen is a time-consuming undertaking. This doesn’t sit well with an aesthetic of quick cuts and shifting perspectives. Stone solves the problem by slowly rotating the sets in overlapping orbits. It also sends the characters for long walks around the stage to distract from the fact that they keep singing long and hard about the same fucking thing.

At first, all this activity is fun; Eventually it gets tiring. When Enrico climbs onto Edgardo’s van to deliver a tune, we understand it as a belligerent gesture of disrespect. Then Lucia does the same (because she’s crazy) and Edgardo too (he’s sad). It feels like if the opera had provided a few more main characters, Stone would have ordered them up there as well.

In the second act, the production threatens to derail. Or rather, since this is car country (a point highlighted by several wrecked cars cluttering the scene), it rumbles across a yellow line and drifts dangerously close to a ditch. Enrico, in debt to a gangster, gave his sister as collateral; guests are invited and the cake is baked before Lucia is told of the plan to marry her to the man in the pink suit. Soon, the tragedy of a young woman’s oppression and psychosis turns into a slapstick comedy, with guests brawling in the background throughout the act’s final sextet. (The cake, of course, ends up on someone’s face.)

Luckily, conductor Riccardo Frizza and the cast save the staging from total confusion. Donizetti’s music accelerates, brakes and veers through its emotional terrain so often that a clumsy hand can make it a wobbly ride, but Frizza handles the score with clarity and skill. The singers are up for Stone’s antics, but not at the expense of the music. Whether they’re staggering drunk, brandishing a knife, or rolling around in bloody erotic fantasy, the elegance of their singing never falters. Even in combat camouflage or with his own gun to his head, tenor Javier Camarena sings Edgardo like a soft-spoken softie, firmly in control of his tone and confident in his flexible phrasing. There is no compromise with the concept here. Donizetti wrote extraordinarily beautiful music, and Camarena delivers it with her beauty intact. Artur Rucinski imbues Enrico with villainous panache, treating him like a character in a mob movie, and Matthew Rose makes Raimondo a smooth and efficient family priest.

But the glue that holds the whole contraption together is Sierra, whose Lucia scales from bombshell to breakdown without sacrificing so much as a grace note. It’s not an easy balance; too much exquisiteness can make it hard to buy. But Sierra’s insane performance suggests that losing her mind wins her technique – that all those rolls, scales, trills and appoggiaturas stem from the broken dam of her psyche. Her voice, haloed by the disturbing whistling of a glass harmonica, is the expression of a delight and a fragility filtered by an inexorable discipline. The screen renders the world as chaos and a lie; music, even the music of madness, can never cease to make sense.

Lucia of Lammermoor is at the Metropolitan Opera until May 21.

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