Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

La Monnaie (Cirque Royal), Sunday April 26 2009

Conductor: Julian Reynolds. Production: Guy Joosten. Lucia: Elena Mosuc. Edgardo di Ravenswood: John Osborn. Lord Enrico Ashton: Angelo Veccia. Lord Arturo Bucklaw: Jean-François Borras. Raimondo Bidebent: Giorgio Giuseppini. Alisa: Catherine Keen. Normanno: Carlo Bosi. La Monnaie orchestra and chorus. Glass harmonica: Sascha Reckert.

One of the striking things about Brussels is that, unlike in Paris, say, or New York, you see old people everywhere. The Taverne du Passage opened over 80 years ago, since when nothing has changed (“immuable” is the word used on the website), and that seems to include the customers: the regulars look like they’ve been eating a weekly Waterzoï in that art-deco setting since the 1920s. The couple next to us on Sunday were so ancient that all they could manage for lunch was a glass of beer; soup and bread; a heaped chafing-dish of lamb chops, with potato croquettes, asparagus and a jug of red wine on the side; and rum babas to finish. They didn’t even take coffee. Many of these regulars go on, after lunch, to La Monnaie: I have often called our Sunday Matinee subscription the “pensioners’ special.” And if, as I’ve mentioned in my reports, applause at La Monnaie is usually discreet, however good the performance, it's probably because half the audience are doddery and the other half asleep.

It was quite a surprise, therefore, to see the burghers rising to give last Sunday’s Lucia a standing ovation – the first I’ve seen in Brussels in the last 20 years. This was a remarkable achievement for a house that, on the whole, can’t afford to pay stars (at least once they’re out; it was in Brussels that I first heard Villazon, in La Bohème, about a week before he became world famous - a shooting star in his case) but a triumph for the alternative approach taken over the years by La Monnaie: a young but strong, consistent cast, singing and acting with commitment and courage in a good production - and in this case of a popular favourite. Above all, it had that essential feature (without which it isn’t worth turning up at all), a sock-popping Lucia.

Even as the first act went on I slapped myself for nit-picking, as Elena Mosuc’s style is less straightforward, more mannered than I like. But she makes an unusually dark, juicy, fruity Lucia, the notes are certainly there and often very beautiful, and the top ones maintain their body, indeed sound easy. And she had a surprise in store for us at the end of act 1. It was impossible from the programme notes on editions and key changes to tell which one was being used here (though the glass harmonica was naturally unmissable – and it makes the mad scene so much more convincing) but assuming Lucia and Edgardo were ending their duet in Bb, then not only did he pop in, a few bars before the end, an unexpected D, but she, instead of simply rising through the “Addi-i-o” to the final Bb, shot in a top F. I’m not sure I ever heard anything like it before.

John Osborn, as I said, gave us a very decent top D (again assuming I got the key right; in any case, an unexpectedly high note) and was all round an impeccable Donizetti-weight tenor (not for huge places like the Met or Bastille), just as Angelo Veccia was an excellent all-round Donizetti baritone, with a fairly bright, edgy sound and handsome, forceful, Latino presence. Giorgio Giuseppini was an excellent, this time Verdi-weight Bidebent, i.e. with heft. Jean-François Borras was relatively lightweight (vocally; physically it was another matter), heady but lyrical. And the rest were as faultless as needed for the little they have to do.

Apart from being in the round (this was at the Cirque Royal, not La Monnaie itself) the production was a fairly straightforward modern-dress telling of the story with a few twists. The arena was filled with a vast, raised, rectangular Versailles parquet with steps on either side. At the far end, where normally elephants and clowns would enter, was a forest clearing inhabited, like any self-respecting Scottish clearing, by an orchestra, a conductor on a podium and a glass harmonica. The transition between parquet and forest was managed by heaps of dead leaves and a couple of felled trees. There were what, from a distance, looked like “romantic icons” positioned among the trunks: a wooden cross, a giant butterfly, cut-outs from Caspar David Friedrich paintings (Wanderer Above the Mist, Woman in Morning Sunlight), and Lucia’s lair was to the left: a much-sat-in, button-backed velvet armchair and a ladder up to a kind of tree house.

As the opera began, the parquet was furnished with long wooden tables at which Scotsmen, some in kilts, some not, lounged, played chess and read papers and books. At the interval, wonderfully prim maids in black dresses, white caps and aprons rearranged the chairs and tables that had been overturned by Lucia and Edgardo in their Part One excitement, spread the tables with impeccable linen and laid places for the wedding banquet: impeccable china, crystal, silver and arrangements of white roses, all impeccably lined up, and that was the set till the end.

Lucia and Enrico were not the usual bully and victim but more the bickering, Cleopatra-and-Ptolemy sort of brother and sister, he dark, handsome, chic and brutal (for example, holding a pistol to Bidebent’s head – but isn’t Bidebent supposed to be a Calvinist chaplain, not a cardinal in full pink?), she an Addams-family type rebel-Goth in flowing, romantic black, with long black hair, dark eyes and dark lips, talking back, not cowering. Egdardo was fairly Gothic himself, in full-length black leather and long hair, and Lucia flung herself at him and devoured him with famished kisses.

For the wedding, the bald-headed Enrico was chicer and sexier still, panther-like in a black velvet dinner jacket and silk waistcoat, and the wedding guests were a perfect imitation of an Edinburgh Rotary Club dinner or gala night at Covent Garden. Bucklaw was a swaggering parvenu lout, perfecting his smile in a knife blade, checking the brand of the champagne, feeling the quality of Enrico's lapel, resting his feet on the table - and cowering under it when Edgardo appeared. Now the question is, was Lucia really mad or was it just her way of getting revenge on her brother, disgracing him in front of the nobs even at the cost of her own life? In this production, that wasn’t clear. Having staggered in to the wedding breakfast with the hem of her dress already filthy, handing out chunks of netting snipped from her veil to the guests, during a mesmerising mad scene (more mesmerising here thanks to the glass harmonica) she opened her veins with the scissors and finished herself off hara-kiri style. Edgardo’s late entry, with his leather coat flowing around him, waving a double-barrelled shotgun like Elmer Fudd, raised a titter. Several times he threatened to blow his brains out with it, balancing his chin on the barrels, but he, too, finally committed hara-kiri before being joined by a second (clean) Lucia for his apotheosis.

So, a few twists, as I said. And as I also said, the “Matinee 2” pensioners loved it.

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