Opera Bohemia: Lucia di Lammermoor

30 Mar 2012 in Highland, Music, Showcase

Spa Pavilion, Strathpeffer, 29 March 2012

KIRKCALDY-based Opera Bohemia seem to have a thing about tragic love stories in which the heroine ends up dead.

Last year, in their debut production, it was La Boheme with a dead Mimi; next year it is to be Madama Butterfly with a dead Cio-Cio-San; but this year’s visit to the Strathpeffer Pavilion saw the goriest of them all, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in which Lucia kills her bridegroom, goes mad and dies, and then her lover commits suicide.

Opera Bohemia

Opera Bohemia

Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammanaro based their opera on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, and he in turn had a few Shakespearean influences in his story, a sort of variations on Othello meets Romeo and Juliet. The opera should have been a sure-fire success in the 1830’s when all of Europe was fascinated by things Scottish, from warring clans to old castles, from beautiful lochs to atmospheric mountains. While the British aristocracy did the Grand Tour of Europe, their European counterparts, such as Felix Mendelssohn, toured Scotland, and especially after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had made Balmoral their holiday home.

For a few years Lucia di Lammermoor was a success, although it was widely regarded as primarily a platform for the leading coloratura soprano who invariably embellished her part with trills and cadenzas. Donizetti even came up with a French version with a slightly different plot and more importance on some characters while others were eradicated altogether. It was not until the role of Lucia was taken on by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland in the 1950s and 1960s that its popularity was confirmed and it is now well established in the operatic Top Twenty.

To a certain extent, Opera Bohemia is a Nairne family and friends venture, with a number of familiar names appearing in the cast list. They cut their teeth in the productions of the amateur Fife Opera and then went on to train as professional singers. Last year they were very fine; this year they have shown considerable improvement under the eye of director John Wilkie.

In the title role, Australian soprano Suzanne Shakespeare shows that hers is a name to watch. Her voice is pure, her expression convincing and her acting considered as she easily resisted the temptation to go over the top during the Mad Scene, “Il dolce suono”, one of the highlights of the opera. At various times she was called upon to hit some very high notes, which she achieved with ease and without even a hint of screech. The plot demands that Lucia is the focal point of the opera, with all the other roles being more or less supportive. Such was Suzanne Shakespeare’s natural stage presence that she satisfied this demand without effort.

As the protagonist family heads, Enrico Ashton, Lucia’s brother, and Edgardo di Ravenswood, her lover, company stalwarts Douglas Nairne and Alistair Digges in the lead baritone and tenor roles showed mature and powerful voices, both able to display the contrasting emotions required of them; for Enrico an arrogance with a streak of cruelty as he plots against the lovers, and for Edgardo the strength and compassion that has to dissolve into dismay and disbelief.

James Arthur, with a powerful bass voice, sings Raimondo the Calvinist chaplain to the Ashton family, torn between his duties as a retainer and his wish to give moral and emotional support to Lucia in her time of need. Lucia’s other friend is her companion Alisa, demurely sung by Scots mezzo Laura Kelly, careful to warn Lucia about the dangers of her love for Edgardo. Interestingly, in the French version of the opera Donizetti all but writes out these two characters so as to emphasise how isolated Lucia becomes as the tragedy unfolds.

The cast is completed by Christopher Nairne as Normanno, Enrico’s ghillie, and Barry McAleer as Arturo, Lucia’s arranged bridegroom, with Louise Kemeny and Nicholas Cowie as members of the Ashton household.

Designer Magnus Popplewell has built a clever and versatile set that fills the stage in various guises yet still fits in to the back of a box van. By rotating the central section the set changes from the castle grounds to the main hall, to a garden fountain, to a graveyard. And over the whole thing lurks a ghostly tree resembling the hand of fate. There were some nice small touches, such as the family retainer Nicholas Cowie sketching on a canvas during the famous sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” – Ah! They didn’t have wedding photographers in the 17th century!

Opera Bohemia gets one up on Scottish Opera in the music department, in that instead of just a piano accompaniment for these compact productions, Opera Bohemia includes a violinist as well. Between them Laura Baxter and Amira Bedrush-McDonald provide just the right level of musical input, reading the tempi and the expression of the singers flawlessly.

And a final example of the multi-tasking skills that Opera Bohemia can call upon – the very helpful English surtitles provided by Alistair Digges. There is a great deal of action compacted into Lucia di Lammermoor, and those surtitles were a huge help in understanding what was happening. Strathpeffer Pavilion manager Margaret Macdonald showed a stroke of genius when she asked to be added to the list of tour venues for Opera Bohemia. The audience may not have been huge, but it was appreciative and it says much that this hidden gem in the Highlands can include live opera in its annual programme.

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© James Munro, 2012