Howling, gusting wind. Damp, bitter cold. Dark, gathering twilight. Exactly the right atmosphere, you must agree, for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Sir Walter Scott's romantic historical novel of dark deeds in the grim castles of the Scottish clans, which opened Opera Holland Park's new season.
Unfortunately, that was the atmosphere in real life rather than the one on stage: the English weather has not been kind to major events this week. The Holland Park tent flaps loudly in winds of that force and is open at the sides, allowing a gale to blow across the orchestra pit and stage. With the addition of the local helicopter (which seems to make a speciality of appearing at the beginning of the most important aria) and the uninvited presence of a chorus of French schoolchildren in the park outside, the conditions must have been pretty tough on the performers.
The City of London Sinfonia, under Stuart Stratford, turned in a thoroughly creditable performance, bright and breezy with a few fluffs and intonation whoopsies understandable in the circumstances. All four of the principal singers were bang in tune and had lovely tone with good feel for Donizetti's bel canto style, full of flowing lines and decoration. The difference lay in whether you could hear them. Exciting as Donizetti's orchestral scoring is, bel canto demands that the singer be heard clearly and loudly above the orchestra and command both the stage and the soundscape. The bass Keel Watson impressed as the chaplain Raimondo, his musicality allied to a strong stage presence. David Stephenson's baritone was smooth and pleasant to listen to, but he wasn't quite nasty enough as the evil brother Enrico and his voice didn't stand out from the background. Aldo di Toro was stronger as the hero Edgardo.
The chorus certainly didn't seem to be suffering from the conditions: they were in fine voice throughout. Their big scene when Edgardo arrives to interrupt Lucia's wedding comes after a long series of dialogues between pairs of characters: it generated enormous excitement and gave the whole performance lift and momentum.
But the title role is the make or break of Lucia di Lammermoor. Elvira Fatykhova certainly has the credentials for the role: she can negotiate rapid coloratura passages with precision and a voice that's warm and smooth, without a hint of harshness. She must have been husbanding her strength for the marathon mad scene of Act III, because I found her underpowered for the first half of the opera - with the exception of just a few of the climactic high notes where she showed herself perfectly capable of filling the house. In the mad scene, though, Fatykhova came to life. She was in total control of the early pianissimo, and just kept getting better as the scene progressed; it was also marvellous to hear the accompaniment scored for glass harmonica (as it was originally written) and played excellently by Philipp-Alexander Marguerre. The closing aria, Spargi d'amaro pianto, was a memorable piece of singing, with warmth of voice, grace of decoration and real strength.
I was disappointed by Jamie Vartan's set. The interlocking massive slate grey blocks were somewhat atmospheric, but I couldn't see the point of the omnipresent bed or of the various bits of chicken-wire cage that were moved into various shapes on the stage. Representing the desolate Wolf's Crag as a set of library steps just seemed odd. The bel époque costumes worked well enough in the wedding scene, but in the main, it was rather a drab staging. With the exception of Fatykhova in the mad scene and Watson's Raimondo throughout, the acting performances didn't really impress either.
Musically, therefore, this Lucia makes a fine season opener, with some moments of true greatness from the chorus and from Elvira Fatykhova in the title role. As a piece of total drama, it leaves something to be desired, and in future years, I do hope that Opera Holland Park improve either the tent or their appeasement of the weather gods.
Holland Park TheatreHolland Park
London Greater London United Kingdom W8 6LU