(Photo credit: Marty Sohl)
This review was written in collaboration with David Salazar.
On April 23, the Metropolitan Opera opened a new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
This marked the second production of Donizetti’s masterpiece during General Manager Peter Gelb’s term. In 2007, the company brought a production by Mary Zimmerman which set the piece in Victorian times and created a ghost story out of the work. Zimmerman’s take had some flaws but overall was traditional in many aspects and created a vehicle for its sopranos to interpret and rework the blocking to make it suitable to their needs.
Fifteen years later the Met decided to bring Simon Stone, a transgressive theater and film director who had already directed operas in Europe, to helm the masterwork. It was always going to be a challenge due to the updating of the work from 17th century Scotland to a present-day town in the Rust Belt. Leading up to the premiere the production had garnered mixed reception on social media and the New York Times even predicted boos.
Safe to say those who were scared were right—Stone’s production was nothing less than a disaster.
Where to Look? The Distancing Effect of Too Many Screens
A few years back, Broadway put up a short-lived production of “West Side Story” by Ivo van Hove that was promptly shut down by COVID-19. But before that happened, audiences were given a chance to witness it. The main attraction of that show was that it featured massive screens that amplified the action taking place on the stage. And while it proved an interesting concept that allowed audiences to come closer to the action, it also proved distancing and confusing from a visual perspective.
Of that showcase, The NY Times said the following: “The fact that our focus is repeatedly splintered obviates much chance for emotional concentration and, consequently, the possibilities to be truly moved.” The review goes on to note two moments of crucial dramatic pull that were undercut by the inability to discern where he needed to place his focus. He notes that there is a television playing while Maria and Anita fight over the recent tragedy and that unfortunately, the critic found himself “trying to make out the grainy heads on the small TV and wondering what they had to say.”
Imagine this, but worse and you have Simon Stone’s take on “Lucia.”
From the very start of the opera until the end, the audience is forced to make a very problematic choice—watch a massive movie screen hanging over the proscenium (and sometimes even on the proscenium) or watch what is happening onstage.
When the curtain rises to open the night, we watch on a massive screen as Lucia is attacked in front of her house and then subsequently saved by Edgardo. The screen rises to the top of the stage and we are then shown the action taking place on stage and then on camera, both in real-time. Naturally, most audience members would be drawn to the screen for a few reasons—it’s novel for an opera production; as our own mobile devices would demonstrate, we are naturally drawn to screens; and in the case of this particular scene and others like it, it brings us closer to the action.
And one might make an argument for seeing the action happening up close makes for a unique operatic experience and potentially amplifies what is happening onstage.
But then the seams of the concept immediately start showing moments later.
The entire plot of Lucia hinges on Enrico’s impending ruin and the need to exploit his sister to save him. Getting in the way of that is her love for Edgardo, which Enrico needs to act on. Most of that is laid out in the opera’s opening scene though no one would blame any audience member that somehow missed all of it due to Stone’s decision to keep the cameras rolling and following Nadine Sierra’s Lucia up into her room and watch her paint some picture.
Splitting attention between seeing Sierra paint and attempting to keep track of Enrico’s entire scene is the kind of headache-inducing exercise that makes people run for the exits. Imagine having to sit through three-hours of the same exercise time and time again.
That entire opening scene (and baritone Artur Ruciński) was sabotaged not only by the distraction but by the tonal incoherence. Things that shouldn’t be funny somehow undercut the stakes of what is going on. As Enrico bellows his anger at the situation with his sister, Lucia takes selfies with Edgardo, drawing tons of laughs from the audience; ditto to a package of Goya beans, the only item that Mexican tenor Javier Camarena swiped at the counter given any sort of visual prominence. As Latin American audience members, we didn’t find that moment amusing in the least but simply reductive of not only our culture but ALL Latin American cultures. Nowhere else in the opera is Camarena’s Latin American identity explored or represented in the opera except in this one moment that was essentially played for laughs. It was stereotypical mockery clearly directed by a white person (fortunately, it’s also an easy one to fix).
In any case, Ruciński’s opening scene would not be the last to be sabotaged by big screens. Lucia and Edgardo’s big love scene was diminished by the fact that it was set in a drive-in movie theater with the screen playing a classic black-and-white film (would a Rust Belt town be playing an old Hollywood movie at a local drive-in 2022?). Once more, the attention was split between trying to follow the music and singing and watching the massive film on-screen and trying to figure out why this film (program notes indicate that it is “My Favorite Brunette,” a 1947 spoof of film noirs). As an audience member, one is under the assumption that anything onstage is essential and that it has a dramatic purpose for the storytelling. So if Stone is going to put up a black-and-white movie onstage while his two lovers are singing to each other, the basic understanding is that this movie has some symbolic importance that can better illuminate what Stone is saying about the opera. One would think that he didn’t pick the film by chance. So most of this scene was spent trying to figure out why this specific movie, a futile exercise if you don’t know what the film is. That in and of itself creates a distancing effect that distracts you from being in the moment with the story and characters.
The screens continued to be major issues throughout the second Act. Once more, the opening of this act begins with Enrico plotting. But at the top of the screen, Lucia is typing messages to Edgardo in real-time. Where do you think our eyes settle? No one would blame anyone for being confused about what is going on plot-wise because the two crucial scenes that explore Enrico’s motivation were completely undercut by screens. And this scene, where the stakes of the drama are building, was similarly undercut by laughter in the audience as Lucia checks out Edgardo’s pictures. The coup de grâce came a few scenes later when Enrico shows Lucia pictures of Edgardo’s “infidelity,” also via movie screen at the top of the proscenium. For Lucia, this is a major turning point in her downward spiral—the only man she’s ever trusted has betrayed her. Now this poor woman, after years of exploitation at the hands of an abusive brother, has no one to turn to. If you want to understand why she murders a guy later and goes mad, this scene is the one where it all starts to come undone. Except it was impossible to take it seriously with audience members “loling” as Lucia takes a look at the pictures.
One of the big challenges of doing real-time cameras (or doing ANYTHING with cameras in general) is that it requires tremendous coordination and precision. One poor move in the wrong direction by anyone involved (actor / lighting / camera / crew) and the entire illusion and suspension of disbelief can come undone. Unfortunately, this reality became all too clear at the end of the second Act, specifically during the moments preceding the sextet. The stage was so messily crowded with people that the camera operators seemed to lose their way a few times and the image actually broke the fourth wall and exposed the audience. But in other instances, the choreography was so chaotic that the camera’s images (which were generally quite attractive and well-lit) got exceedingly sloppy. It was a nightmare; the entire blocking of this scene came off as if it was still being rehearsed. Directing massive groups is a major challenge for any director, but especially for an opera director. Most opt for the “less is more” principle as a means of finding a balance between the leads and the chorus. Unless the effect is general chaos, the chorus isn’t doing much or is doing the same thing. But in this case, there was too much frenzied action happening at once. Edgardo and Enrico are facing off. Arturo is being inappropriate with Lucia. And in the background some chorus members are fighting, among other distractions. Throw in the crammed mis-en-scene and the mess of colors and the entire thing came off as random and improvised (and not in a good way).
The other challenge that can arise from using video in a real-life production is a technical misfire. Those who have been going to the Met Opera the last decade or so might have born witness to the endless misfires of “The Machine” for the Ring production. We have witnessed a handful of such disasters in which the technology stops working, the images misfire, or the system reboots. In the case of this “Lucia” production, the camera feed turned dark as the set transitioned to Lucia’s first big scene in Act one. Later on, the subtitles that had been appearing at the bottom of the screen throughout the performance disappeared for a long portion of Camarena’s first aria, forcing us to revert to another screen for the support, the one in front of each audience seat.
If Stone’s intention was to show a fractured mind and our own fractured attention spans via the screens, he managed to almost achieve that in two particular moments – Lucia’s two big solo moments. In the first, during “Regnava nel silenzio” the top screen actually opts for showing pre-recorded footage in which we see Lucia witnessing “the ghost.” The actress (whose name is not credited in the program) does some incredible choreography that coupled with the handheld visual style has a potent effect. And then during Lucia’s famed mad scene, we get a juxtaposition between what she is imagining with Edgardo and what is actually happening around her.
If these were the only two moments where the screens were used, then this experiment is likely more successful. But as it stands, this is a case of diminishing returns. You get to “Regnava nel silenzio” already exhausted and loopy from the use of screens in the opening scenes that the impact of the pre-recorded footage is gravely minimized. And the same holds true for the Mad Scene, though its lack of impact has as much to do with its placement as it does with its execution. The Mad Scene is a very long scene and somehow, the screens managed to expose that and make it feel endless. The big reason? The images we see on screen grow tiresome and repetitive. For long sequences all we see are the faces of Nadine Sierra and Javier Camarena in bliss, smiling at each other, kissing each other. It never really builds. Even when they are in a hotel bed, the intensity of their passion never grows, the scene never evolves. We get some evolution the third time the pre-recorded footage returns, this time showing how Lucia finds Edgardo’s gun. But it has the “too little, too late” effect.
The most awkward moment came at the end of the mad scene where after the music came to its conclusion, the curtain dropped and we were greeted to what initially seemed like “behind-the-scenes” footage. One could see Artur Rucinski clapping for his colleague Nadine Sierra as he walked by. Even though Sierra was supposed to stay in character, it seemed that she had fallen out momentarily and was almost laughing into the camera, which made the whole experience bizarre. Suddenly, she was back in character walking toward the camera on her way to shoot herself in the head. While the choice to conclude Lucia’s death scene was understandable, the transition was rather sloppy and severely undercut the effectiveness of the moment.
The other major distractor is one that is becoming all-too-common in the Peter Gelb era – the use of rotating sets. It seems that every production now needs it as a means of transitioning from scene to scene. Stone ups the ante by using it WITHIN scenes as a means to avoid blocking scenes. Time and again, we get the set rotating around as characters walk and talk. Lucia and Edgardo can’t have a conversation in a single space without the set needing to rotate. Lucia and Raimondo can’t have a conversation without the set rotating. Edgardo and Enrico can’t have their big confrontation without the set needing to rotate. And Lucia can’t have her mad scene without… you get the picture. It’s repetitive and makes every scene feel increasingly general and uninteresting; every single character dynamic essentially becomes one and the same. It becomes so predictable even that when some plot business has to happen, you can intuit that one of two things will take place – either the live video or pre-recorded picture will pop up on the screen above, or the set will start to rotate. One could argue that they are “walking around town” or in the case of the Lucia-Raimondo scene, walking around the house to reveal the wedding preparations. But the Edgardo-Enrico walk-and-talk is maddening for how it undercuts any chance of tension in that scene. Why is Enrico walking away from Edgardo when he was the one who searched for him? Where is he leading him? When the scene ends and Enrico just runs off, it left the scene in the same exact place where it started with nothing gained. In the past, this scene was cut from the opera; Stone makes a compelling case to have it cut from his own production.
The Mad Scene set rotation is the most, well, maddening of all. Not only is the top screen on at full blast, but the rotating set only exacerbates the frustration of not knowing where to look. This is the epitome of not being able to engage fully and become immersed in the world of the opera.
The biggest issue with both the rotating sets and video screens is not only how they distanced the viewer experientially but also undercut the characters and thus the story, which were massively underserved in a number of ways.
The Met Opera and its team went into overdrive in the run-up to this production, promoting this new production and how its choice of setting would help illuminate the opera. Among the things thrown about was that the mis-en-scene would show how Lucia was driven to drug use because of the abuse around her. While we get glimpses of the abuse (Enrico is stereotypical “white trash,” his face tattooed, a bottle always at his fingertips, and his fists always punching something), the drug abuse is… not really there. We see Lucia takes some opiates at one point early in the opera and that’s it. It doesn’t evolve beyond that or build in any meaningful way. The drug abuse was supposed to justify, at least in this world, why Lucia goes so crazy that she murders a guy; but the absence of that character detail not only undercut the entire enterprise, but made the climactic murder unintentionally funny.
When Lucia reappears after the murder of her husband, her dress is drenched in blood. Drenched. As if she was soaked not just in some of Arturo’s blood, but all of it. Then we find out, via Raimondo, that she murdered him with a fire hydrant. Yes, this is an opera in which a woman murders a man and loses her touch with reality. But that doesn’t mean that production should suddenly make a massive tonal and genre shift in which the tragic lead character is so bloody that it is cartoonish. And if that visual isn’t distracting enough, Stone adds in some zombie figures at another point. It’s a tonal mishap that should work in principle if it had any kind of emotional setup or build. For all the extra time spent with cameras and closeups, we just don’t know who this Lucia or anyone else really is outside of general terms like army boy,” “abusive drunk brother,” “priest.”
One could argue that the environment and setting tells us who she is by association, but that runs into the same trap of the Goya Beans early on – it generalizes the setting and the people living in it. Are we supposed to just accept that because the opera is “set in the Rust Belt” and see Lucia do drugs once that she’s always doing drugs or everyone in that world does? It’s a stereotype that pushes the storytelling into troubling waters.
Other issues arise from this – why does Enrico hate Edgardo? In the original, they are rival families. Here, we don’t have any of that background so that conflict is more vacuous. Is it racially motivated hatred? And if so, does that require that every Edgardo from here on out to be a person of color (again, nothing else seems to speak to Edgardo’s character or background)? Or that every Enrico be white? The context, as presented, is unclear.
Opera is larger than life, but our ability to suspend disbelief with works of the romantic era comes from the fact that its stories are told in distant times; its transcendence comes from its “Once Upon a Time” aspect and how it’s themes continue to relate to today. In that context we can better relate to the archetypal natures of the characters. But if the choice is to place the opera in a time that is more familiar to us, wherein we are supposed to see ourselves, then the detail work required is that much more essential in justifying the choices made. And there was potential for that. Goya beans aside, if you wanted to explore Camarena’s Edgardo as some sort of immigrant living out of his van (that’s how I tried to interpret it), there was undeniably space for that; when Camarena sings of the tomb of his ancestors, Stone easily could have included a moment wherein his cameras show us some detail of this past life Edgardo had. But the cameras ultimately served the opposite effect, dwarfing the people and the story at the expense of the technological novelty. Add in some strange creative choices (why is Lucia wearing a 1980s dress and why is Sierra moving it around like she would the dress of a medieval production of “Lucia”?) the entire enterprise came off as haphazard and unpolished.
So it was not surprising that when he and his team came out for curtain calls, Stone was received with a mix of cheers and jeers. It’s lamentable given that Stone is a tremendous filmmaker (just watch “The Dig” on Netflix to see a unique take on the form and structure of the period film), but it was wholly predictable (even the NY Times wanted people to prepare for it). And while one might argue that Stone’s overall execution for the piece was sorely lacking, he didn’t deserve them. His past work speaks for itself and to the identity that he has cultivated. We knew to expect a revisionist production that relocated the action to another time. We knew this would not be traditional alla Zeffirelli, Schenk, or even David McVicar. Stone was not hired to do that and his production for “Lucia” didn’t just materialize over the last week or two. It was approved and then rehearsed and developed for months. Ultimately, Simon Stone was in effect being Simon Stone, warts and all. That his experiment didn’t work (in our eyes) doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have attempted it when given the chance. In essence, to boo him on Saturday night was to boo a man for being true to himself, which I believe most people would agree is unfair. Instead, the boos, jeering, and protests from the audience should have been reserved for the person who put Stone (not to mention the numerous other directors before him), and the artists, in that position, time and again. The person who insists that this is what Met audiences want when, as the boos indicate many don’t.
None of this is to say that film technology, split screens, or displacement of time and setting do not have a place in opera. Of course they do. And perhaps even together (just check out the Opéra National de Paris’ production of “Faust”). But in recent Met history, these kinds of experiments have repeatedly missed.
A Great Maestro Amidst the Chaos
Perhaps what makes this “Lucia” all the more disappointing is that the production’s greatest sacrificial lamb was the music itself. As the only bel canto opera to take the stage in 2021-22, it was excruciating to see this legendary (and still chopped up score) become but a backdrop for the home videos throughout (and thus relegated to having being secondary at many moments).
If there was anything redeeming about the situation, it’s that the company brought on Riccardo Frizza on board to conduct; Frizza is not only the Donizetti Opera Festival’s Music Director, but he specializes in the composer’s music.
On this evening, the conductor opened up some of the cuts. Enrico’s cabaletta was repeated and the coda to “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” The coda to “Veranno a te,” which is one of the most rapturous conclusions to a Donizetti duet was also opened and a pleasant surprise. However, other traditional cuts were kept, including the “Se tradirmi” and the Raimondo-Lucia duet, among others. No matter how many conductors attempt to patch up the score, it continues to sound awkward and loses the organic quality of Donizetti’s music.
Even on this evening when Frizza held the orchestra together with that organic flow, those cuts were felt. Perhaps where the Italian conductor excelled most was in bringing out the rich textures of the score like the opening harp solo in Act one which was both angelic and nostalgic (and as such, decidedly at odds with the staging). There was also a moment in the “Veranno a te” where Frizza brought out the lush violin melody that accompanied the singers. The orchestra also rose to great force during the faster sections which the conductor drove with rapid tempos including “Spargi d’Amaro,” “Se Tradirmi,” “Esci fuggi il furor che n’accende,” “O sole piu ratto a sorger,” and many of the interludes that connected into duets and cavatinas.
Frizza also emphasized the runs from the strings which were played with precision; he also gave some moments to the brass that are sometimes covered or not emphasized. And then there were moments of introspection like “Oh! qual funesto avvenimento” which Frizza took a bit slower and slowly built to its climax. Another standout moment was the glass harmonica solo by Friedrich Heinrich Kern, who really brought an evocative sound to the theater and created the atmosphere for the mad scene.
Just High Notes & A Blank Stare
In an interview, Nadine Sierra said, “I think people will leave this ‘Lucia’ thinking more about her as a real person than as a vocalist singing high notes.”
Unfortunately for her, it was quite the opposite effect.
For years Lucia has become a launchpad for sopranos to sing high notes and sing extended cadenzas that show off their vocal prowess. At times the music has lost its meaning in favor of ending an aria with an E flat so audiences can erupt in bravos (in reality, Donizetti never wrote a single E flat or D to conclude the passages of his music). But the music is filled with depth, from the ghostly melody of “Regnava nel silenzio,” to the hallucinatory “Spargi d’amaro,” to the haunting glass harmonica that opens the mad scene. And then there are those moments of rich and introspective music like “Soffriva nel pianto” and “il dolce suono” that does a deep dive into the psychology of the character.
The character itself is very modern, especially in the era of #metoo and discussions of mental health. Lucia is abused by her brother, abandoned by her lover, and manipulated by a religious figure. She is also dealing with the death of her mother. In essence, the men around her are toxic and she has to survive in a world dominated by them.
It is a dream for any actress and yes for a vocalist who can not only hit the high notes but can also express the psychological ramifications of the abuse she suffers throughout the opera. Sierra has performed the work throughout the world to great acclaim and clearly has an understanding of what she has to sing. She has some impressive and immaculate sostenuti where it seems like she won’t ever run out of air. Her middle voice is rich and round, something she amply displayed in the duet “Sofriva nel pianto” and in her opening lines of “Regnava nel silenzio.” That was also apparent in the sextet which she carried with a gorgeous ringing tone.
However, despite all the productions that she has done, Sierra’s Lucia is missing depth and elegance. The phrasing is oftentimes marred by awkward accents as heard in the “Soffriva nel pianto” and the interlude of the mad scenes where she awkwardly screamed. Her held-out notes neither crescendo nor decrescendo and despite their impressive sostenuti, they are often aimless. Her trills were also grainy, especially in the cadenza to “Regnava nel Silenzio” and during the “A si” in “Spargi d’Amaro” where she chose to emphasize the trills as laughs.
And then there were the high notes. Throughout the evening Sierra held out notes to end her duets, the sextet, and the mad scene emphasizing the importance of these interpolated notes. And while Sierra definitely has the Cs, Ds, and E Flats, on this evening every time she would go up to the extreme part of her voice, the timbre turned shrill and lost all the brightness that the much more appealing middle section has. During the end of her mad scene cadenza, Sierra’s trills turned flat and as she reached the high E flat that ends the section, the note sounded flat. She still ended the second part of the mad scene with a shining E Flat, probably the most memorable musical aspect of her entire evening.
Character-wise, Sierra’s Lucia had a blank stare that gave no understanding of what she was going through and how all the events around her were affecting her. To be fair, it’s a hard thing that she’s being asked to do – be subtle on camera and then perform for the person all the way at the top of the family circle when the cameras are off. It is two different approaches and methods of acting and she, more than anyone, was being asked to split essentially herself. It’s no surprise that she would approach a less-is-more approach when on camera, but it left her interpretation as one-note most of the time; this is precisely why using the screens and cameras less likely would have created a bigger effect in the grand scheme of things. As noted, her entire mad scene was sabotaged by the staging and between the split attention to the screen and the rotating set, it was virtually impossible to engage truly or immerse with the live interpretation of Lucia that Sierra was giving in that moment.
Vocal Fireworks Undercut
As noted, the role of Enrico was utterly sabotaged by the distracting film, making him ultimately a one-dimensional “villain.” Thankfully, the Met brought Artur Ruciński, who was without a doubt the vocal standout of the night with his polished and elegant baritone.
His opening aria, which was hard to concentrate on (again due to Lucia’s painting, the Goya beans, and the subsequent selfie), sounded clean and filled with muscular sound. The ensuing cavatina, “La pietade in suo favore” was sung with a booming baritone and outstanding flexibility. It was a great surprise to see the baritone open the cut and repeat it before interpolating a powerful high note and showing the character’s drive; he held the note all the way through the orchestral coda displaying not only his fantastic sound but also ever-impressive breath support.
In his following scene with Nadine Sierra’s Lucia, Ruciński sang with a suave tone that displayed his long legato lines and his immaculate bel canto line that explored his manipulative side. His duet with Javier Camarena was also fantastic as he brought strength to his voice, though his “drunk” acting and the aforementioned “blocking” undercut the tension of the scene. Both Camarena and Ruciński played to their strengths melding the voices to create great harmonies. He had some trouble with his opening lines “Ascolta. Di letizia il mio soggiorno” where you could notice the baritone’s coloratura turned a bit sloppy.
In the role of Edgardo, Javier Camarena had a mixed evening. His opening duet with Sierra was filled with choppy phrasing and at many times, the tenor sounded exhausted. One could hear cut-off phrases and some raspy excerpts in his high notes. The voice also never really blended well with Sierra’s and got lost toward the end of “Veranno a te” getting covered by the orchestra and his stage partner. In the sextet, he sang with vigor, especially in his lines “Hai tradito il crelo, e amor.” But Camarena struggled with his high notes.
In Act three, the tenor finally found his stride, singing an “O sole piu ratto a sorger” with great force and bringing some thrilling runs as well as long phrases. He even interpolated a magnificent high note to cap off the duet. The final scene “Fra poco a me ricovero” also saw Camarena singing some of his most beautiful phrases. He used the decrescendos and crescendos to shape the long lines that Donizetti wrote without exaggerating the expression. Instead, he sang with a delicate tone that transmitted the emotional suffering of his character. His “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” was also shaped with elegance and precision and also saw him singing with softer tones. The second repeat of the aria was incredibly effective as he gave the timbre a breathy feel that was evocative of the character’s death. Perhaps his only misstep was an awkward interpolated high note in the middle of the first part, which Camarena sang gorgeously but had a hard time getting out of as he decrescendoed it.
And while he had some effective musical moments, Camarena’s character never came to life as his costumes made him out to look like the Bumpkin Nemorino instead of the assertive Edgardo. It was a mishmash of poorly chosen costumes. On the camera, his performance seemed to become repetitive instead of illuminating.
In the role of Raimondo, Matthew Rose was celebrating his 100th performance at the Met. However, he was miscast in the role as his voice sounded nervous throughout resulting in many flat passages and a lot of breathy and vibrato-less singing.
As Arturo, Eric Ferring showcased a beautiful tone while Deborah Nansteel’s Alisa brought a gutsy mezzo filled with a full and resonant voice.
In the end, the Metropolitan Opera’s approach to bringing in a new and exciting audience ended up with a half-full theater.