A thoroughly modern meltdown in Met’s reimagined “Lucia di Lammermoor”

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NEW YORK – Lammermoor is not what it used to be. Or at least it wasn’t Saturday night at the Metropolitan Opera.

In Simon Stone’s visually stunning and conceptually arresting 1835 staging of Donizetti’s enduring opera Lucia di Lammermoor, the green hills and wild countryside of 18th-century Scotland became a cheap motel, a liquor store, an ATM that charges too much. Its natural glory is now artificial and glaring; his secrets now a convenience store.

But while its surfaces may seem familiar at first, over the course of three meticulously modernized acts, this tainted, unidentified speck of dystopia emerges as a far more unforgiving landscape. It’s a mix of Lucia’s inner and outer terrain, a mix of a hard life and an unruly dream.

Stone dispatches a massive arsenal of gadgets, effects and, yes, some straight-forward gimmicks to turn Lucia’s descent into insanity inside out and place the story in a contemporary context, like a bride to an unwanted marriage.

These include the costumes of Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón (who finds soprano Nadine Sierra’s Lucia in an instantly iconic ensemble of frosted jeans and a cropped pink parka) and Lizzie Clachan’s spectacular rotating set. It was in near-constant motion, pedaling through an increasingly claustrophobic loop that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town: its features splintered and split along with Lucia’s psyche in a slow vortex that felt more like a vortex.

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But most obvious among Stone’s various bells and whistles are the screens and cameras, which in true 21st-century form are everywhere.

Camera crews stalk the stage, following the characters and engaging in the wedding reception by sending a live feed of footage to a “split screen” suspended over the action. (As the curtain rose, an on-screen caption read, “Lucia: Close-Ups of a Cursed Life,” prompting a murmur of seeming concern from the audience.) In other instances, the screen is used for flashbacks and snippets of real and hallucinated events. And as Lucia unravels, the split screen represents the rift between Lucia’s reality and everyone else’s.

Screens are also emerging in the form of social media, where photos on Facebook and Instagram play a key role in a fabricated betrayal and where the disconnect between reality and fantasy is further tested. Between the camera crews and the characters’ smartphones, the question of how Lucia defines her own destiny becomes ever more explosive.

Although Sierra has sung the role several times, this is a new Lucia – one who fumbles in her large purse for her iPhone and lipstick; who sneaks out of her bedroom window and down the fire escape to go out in the evening; gossiping with her friend behind the screen of a disused drive-in movie theater (while silently watching Bob Hope’s 1947 comedy My Favorite Brunette); taking selfies with her forbidden lover Edgardo (sensuously sung by tenor Javier Camarena).

And in a moment conspicuously stretched into a slow-motion slide into ecstasy by Stone, she also downs a shot of a mysterious elixir from the local pharmacy – one that appears to induce spirits, induce a dip despair and provoke (with uncertain effect) the opioid crisis. This is a Lucy Ashton owned by Laura Palmer.

It’s worth pointing out here that Edgardo isn’t the only one whose relationship with Lucia is complicated. Read the reviews of the Met’s many returnees to Lammermoor over the last few decades, and you’ll find a long tradition of critics and salted audiences working far harder to protect Lucia from attack than her abusive brother Enrico ever did . (Sometimes that just means booing the creative team.)

For example, young Francesca Zambello made her directorial debut at the Met in 1992 with a “Lucia” set “in the semi-visible realm of the unconscious,” which was met with boos and scathing reviews. When it attempted a comeback two years later, that was New York The Times’ Bernard Holland dryly advised the Met to “get this production off their books as soon as possible.”

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Four years later, a conceptually restrained olive branch production by French director Nicolas Joel was also berated because, among other things, he played the story too safely and gave up any perceptible point of view. A subsequent production by Mary Zimmerman proved appropriate for Met audiences and brought many talented and blood-soaked Lucia to their knees on the Met stage (including Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay and Pretty Yende).

But those who want to tinker with the opera often find themselves in a similar predicament as Lucia: damned if you do it, damned if you don’t.

Stone seems to give none of those condemnations, opting for an approach that forgoes allegiance in favor of an aggressive investigation of the internal and external forces besieging Lucia’s sanity. The Australian director caused a stir at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 with his production of Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma” and again in 2019 with a production of Cherubini’s “Médée”. You could say that women on the verge of a nervous breakdown have become something of a sweet spot.

For all the changes Stone has made, he has also retained the exquisite silhouette of Donizetti’s music, conducted by Riccardo Frizza throughout the opera with tenderness, intent and exciting dynamic elasticity. If anything, the fidelity of the music provided the basis for the crisscrossing realities of the staging, which at times struggled to capture attention in the right places. Particularly beautiful were Mariko Anraku’s harp and Friedrich Heinrich Kern’s twist on the glass harmonica, whose trills captured the reeling of Lucia’s mind.

And the singing of the entire cast was outstanding. Camarena imbued Edgardo with a sweetness and softness that only sharpened his heartbreak in his breathtaking final aria. Polish baritone Artur Ruciński made a delightfully despicable Enrico, whose wood-panelled office of overdue bills became a perfect cage for the wounded beast of his voice. There was desperation on his face – although the tattoos were harder to see. And bass Matthew Rose embodied one of the finest Raimondos I’ve ever heard, his voice’s authority routinely tempered by a deep and conflicting sympathy.

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Sierra’s Lucia was fiery and sophisticated – and with a heavy reliance on close-ups and seemingly candid moments stolen by the camera, she proved a compelling actress too. If a Lucia’s measure really is the “crazy scene,” then Sierra really rose to the occasion — or collapsed, so to speak. She decorated her last aria as if she were blithely decorating a dead tree, totally surrendering to Lucia’s utter detachment. (Though I wish we’d had more foreshadowing of the meltdown, more than the marks given us by cracks in her composure.) In her final moments, as she turned her gaze to the camera and disappeared behind the opera’s contrivance , it was as if she was staring into your soul – or her phone.

Of course, this seems to be the intended effect of Stone’s experiment: a blurring of distance and intimacy, an equation of performance and reality. Lucia di Lammermoor is an operatic experience that lands somewhere between the wreckage of an obliterated fourth wall and an episode of Euphoria. I hardly recognized Lucia, but I’ve never seen her so clearly either.

Lucia of Lammermoor runs at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York through May 21. Visit metopera.com for tickets and information.

About Gloria Skelton

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