‘Lucia’ In The Rust Belt: Met Abandons Scotland And Scores A Gritty Hit

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A scene from Act I of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ with Javier Camarena as Edgardo and Nadine Sierra as Lucia (on screen). (Photo by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — Simon Stone’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on April 23, is the boldest attempt ever to bring full-on “regie” to the Met. As opera patrons elsewhere, and especially in Europe, have learned over the past several decades, “regietheater” refers to opera productions in which the stage director makes substantial changes in location, staging, plot, etc., to suggest parallels or to advance entirely new ideas and contexts. At its best, it challenges the mind, adding new layers of meaning and freeing warhorses from stale repetition. At its worst, well, it just looks ridiculous.

The Met has long been a bastion for extravagant, but safe, literal productions. Another production of Lucia, by Francesca Zambello in 1992, was the first really bold attempt to shake things up. Lucia is essentially Romeo and Juliet on operatic steroids with coloratura thrown in, and Zambello came up with an abstract Expressionist approach that focused on Lucia’s descent into madness. It did not go well: That opening night featured what likely was the loudest and most sustained booing in Met history. The production was quickly withdrawn, replaced by a safe “tragic songbird in a gilded cage” staging. While the scandal helped launch Zambello’s career elsewhere, it was years before the company again attempted such a radical setting of a major repertory work.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager since 2006, has tried to revise the company’s approach, hoping to cultivate new audiences at the risk of offending what’s left of the old guard. Luc Bondy’s 2009 Tosca was an example of that risk: The audience rebelled against his surreal, kinky approach to a repertory classic. Other attempts have fared better, especially the company’s two recent stagings of Rigolettofirst in Las Vegas and then in Weimar Berlin.

Javier Camarena as Edgardo and Artur Ruciński as Enrico in a scene from Act III of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Stone has gone much further, updating the opera to a decaying Rust Belt town beset with drugs, poverty, and a desperate sort of patriarchy. By evoking a hardscrabble “Hillbilly Elegy” dystopia, Stone shows us that the misogyny and cruelty that might drive a woman to psychopathic outrage are very present today. And here’s the thing: It worked. Carried along by considerable insight, moments of wit, and finely detailed execution, this Lucia is a tour de force — an absorbing night in the theater, not just a vehicle for great singing. Stone and his team have, in effect, created a new artwork, albeit one that remains remarkably close to the original in terms of basic human interactions and the kinds of forces that drive Lucia to madness.

Lizzie Clachan, the set designer, creates a vivid portal into a down-on-its-heels community via an array of businesses — a drugstore, a pawnshop, a liquor store, a convenience store, a motel, and a drive-in movie (always showing My Favorite Brunette, starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour) — and a few houses, including a two-story nondescript frame house for Enrico and family, complete with a rusty fire escape for Lucia’s mad scene. These buildings come and go, wheeled on and off the Met’s giant turntable, which is almost constantly rotating. This might sound clunky, but it works handily, with the variety of images providing a whole range of cultural clues and, towards the end, creating a claustrophobic mood. Meanwhile, a very visible film crew is often onstage armed with handicams, giving us close-ups of the principals, all projected on a gigantic screen above the action — a neat touch that provides cinematic intimacy even when the stage is full of people, as at a wedding.

The costume designers, Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón, mostly manage to walk the fine line between a realistic portrayal of an American underclass and a surreal caricature. It can get complicated: Lucia’s bridesmaids’ slightly tacky dresses looked almost exactly like the dress worn by a woman in my row in the audience, half of which could have wandered into the crowd scenes onstage and fit in nicely (audience attire is changing rapidly, and even on this first night of a new production, a majority of the men were without ties).

Javier Camarena as Edgardo and Nadine Sierra in the title role of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Stone’s genius is in the myriad details that carry his vision forward. In the opening scene, Enrico’s henchmen form a posse armed with baseball bats as they search for Edgardo. Act Two opens with Lucia frantically emailing Edgardo, and we later learn that Enrico’s men have blocked their communications, cleverly updating the intercepted letters of the libretto. In the final act, as Enrico confronts Lucia with his demand that she marry Arturo, he “proves” Edgardo’s faithlessness via a cellphone photo of Edgardo with another woman.

In the first act, as Lucia tells her friend Alisa of a woman who was murdered years earlier at the spot where they’re talking, she describes seeing the woman’s ghost. As she talks, the audience sees a video of Lucia with the earlier victim. Then, during the mad scene, the woman reappears.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Stone is that the concept of madness doesn’t resonate the way it did in Donizetti’s day. In interviews, Stone discussed plans to show Lucia’s addiction to opioids, both to demonstrate her desperation and to help explain her murderous behavior. That idea seems to have been dropped, and we are left with a bride whose deranged state is a rebellion against treachery and tyranny. But the reappearance of the “ghost woman” and a swarm of bloody Arturo doppelgängers serve to emphasize her disconnect from reality.

American soprano Nadine Sierra was Lucia, a role sung at the Met by Sembrich, Pons, Melba, Callas, and Sutherland, among others. Sierra displayed fine bel canto flair, with a beautiful singing line and nice agility. The voice is on the small side, however, and she has a tendency to sing flat, especially in trills. Her dramatic portrayal became more challenging, and potentially much more vivid, because of the close-up video. She succeeded more often than not, and the ability to read the emotions on her face made for some fine theater.

Polish baritone Artur Ruciński was a memorable Enrico, with a large, darkly colored voice and a suitably menacing swagger to match the tattoos on his neck and face. Mexican tenor Javier Camarena was a solid, and sometimes stolid, Edgardo.

A scene from Act III of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ with Nadine Sierra in the title role. (Photo by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)

British bass Matthew Rose was an impressive Raimondo. In other roles, Deborah Nansteel (as Elisa), Eric Ferring (as Artur), and Alok Kumar (as Normando) were superb.

Riccardo Frizza’s conducting was a revelation. He’s something of a bel canto specialist, and his reading — brisk, but elastic and often tender — was persuasive. The Met orchestra played marvelously, and the chorus was impeccable.

At the curtain, the audience seemed almost giddy, with a standing ovation and effusive cheering. When the production team came out, the bravos won soundly over the boos of the philistines.

This time, Gelb’s vision proved correct: The Met has a hit on its hands. Not everyone will love it — I overheard a reference to the “Duck Dynasty Lucia” — but there’s a welcome buzz in the air that will boost interest as HD telecasts carry the show to a larger audience. Regardless of their success, regie productions lack the evergreen staying power of more traditional stagings, and this one will need to be replaced relatively soon, unlike the Zeffirellian extravaganzas the Met rolled out for decades even as they became dusty and worn. It’s a necessary cost if the Met wants to maintain its vitality going forward, appealing to an audience that, for better or worse, craves more visual stimulation.

Lucia di Lammermoor will run through May 21 at the Metropolitan Opera. For tickets and information, go here. The Live in HD telecast premiere is set for May 21 at 12:55 p.mLucia is a co-production with LA Opera, where performances will begin in September.