Estonia’s spiritual capital takes on Lucia di Lammermoor

Anne Prommik, Klassikaraadio editor

15th April 2016

On 7 April, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Katie Mitchell’s feminist production was pelted with rotten fruit for a month before the premiere. Audiences demanded their money back, even though they hadn’t yet seen all the sex, the pregnant Lucia and the violent murder scene. Just the meeting with the director and her controversial concept had been enough.

The work staged in Tartu could also be titled feminist with equanimity. It isn’t a traditional production that follows the libretto to the letter, either. Nor does Hovenbitzer spare us from violence, but it’s presented without gritty naturalism. Children, come to the theatre! It’s hard to imagine more public attention (and thus ticket sales) for an opera than an enraged audience. It’s too bad that Roman Hovenbitzer’s vision did not manage to cause as big an outcry as the recent premiere of Aida at the national opera. Still, both Germans take liberties. Aida director Tobias Kratzer has his protagonist raped, while Lucia is a victim of brutal incest. Why does one production get more mud slung at it, then?

A plus for both of them is the musical direction; however, a dramatic whole did not crystallise in either of them. The exciting but isolated revelations were more like thought experiments than serving the content. The production of Aida went further. Kratzer’s wild ideas were titillating and intriguing, but the baggage of accumulating meanings began to seem oppressive by the end. Lucia doesn’t make such demands on the viewer, and it can be followed without major effort. Perhaps some things are made overly plain, only to be thrown into confusion again. Green running shoes and Renaissance collars and so on – there is a lack of a uniform space and time. And yet Lucia leaves a more integral impression.

In both cases, key roles have been entrusted to international talent – it’s not the norm in Estonia Theatre, but is now the trademark of Vanemuine. One can always quibble, but the musical calibre of both productions far and away exceeds a certain critical threshold. I would not be shy to take a critic from some famous opera city to either production. The orchestras in both theatres have made progress, not at a snail’s pace mind you; they have leapt ahead, hare-like, with only a few evasive turns. The selection of foreign guest soloists and the Estonian singers improve with age, like fine wine. But “ours” could be even better if more stock were placed in them. Unfortunately, this is no longer the era of Callas. We will have to wait for the next Georg Ots (there might even be candidates, but they are quickly snapped up by theatres abroad). The national opera sometimes elevates its divas/divos on to a pedestal, but the stars of Vanemuine’s operas are off the import shelf. The theatre does have its own soloists, though – very few of them. From a children’s performance to opera rehearsal, a musical in the evening, then another musical and a few pieces afterwards. Given Vanemuine’s possibilities, it’s an extremely exciting operatic theatre and I always look forward to new productions. Lucia di Lammermoor is of the same calibre as Eugene Onegin, The Teacher of Reigi and the Vanemuine Grand House production of Carmen.

The story of Roman Hovenbitzer’s production starts in the halcyon days when the lead female protagonist is playing not with flowers and grass but with a doll and a rhino. A soft and lovely symbol of innocence. Her older brother, who is invited to join in the game, abuses the little one; Edgardo, who is the same age, enters through the window and saves the girl from shame. To the director’s credit, the scene works as an organic whole, not an illustration of the overture. Yet the scene didn’t get annoyingly naturalistic, it had pedal points, it could be grasped. Only a crack in the window of Lucia’s room hints at the stain on her soul. Lucia grows up and the baggage of her past, the sins of her forebears, materialise in the form of a Ghost who always appears when with a clatter, Lucia pulls open the cover of the fountain. Devotees of Freud and Jung applauded enthusiastically at this point. In the blood-stained water, she floats the paper boats of her dreams. Marika Aidla’s Ghost seemed natural but horrible, like a fate that can’t be escaped. With a few brushstrokes, Hovenbitzer succeeded in creating a proper horror-film atmosphere. The voodoo-like doubling of characters as dolls, the empty, bleak and abandoned-looking rooms, dream sequence like scenes, moving curtains, characters barging through the walls. Only his penchant for blood became a little too clichéd. Blood flows from Lucia’s eyes on the cover of the programme and the water in the fountain; and of course the bridal dress turns red. He also underscored the dreamlike states with the lack of a specific setting and era.

The theme of sexual violence pervades the life of the adult Lucia, too, when her brother uses brute force to marry her off, but Hovenbitzer doesn’t cross the boundary of good taste in any of these scenes. Lucia’s (Henriette Bonde-Hansen) character is both passionate and passive. The duet with Edgardo (Federico Lepre) reveals a devoted lover, a decisive and independent woman who later nevertheless dutifully obeys orders. Lepre’s vocal abilities are those of a genuine Italian tenor, his expressiveness and cantilena were inextricably connected; Lepre’s voice was particularly evocative in lyrical sections. While lovely, her voice did run into some difficulty in the more powerful repartees. Lepre earns a bravissimo from me for the authentic bel canto touch that seemed to spring from the core of his being. Henriette Bonde, who played Lucia, is also above reproach: her ability to express fear, feverish excitement, passion and hope was impressive, as was the vocal technique used to convey these emotions. Yet it remained unclear – no doubt because of the director’s concept – whether it was because of the shock sustained in her youth that Lucia remained a bit infantile or whether there was a deliberate attempt to portray her as a schizophrenic and because of this her personality seemed a little wan and indistinct. But this didn’t affect the aural quality of the production. Bonde dared to take big risks, which mainly paid off – using vocal effects and intensively charged piano passages.

The powerful Enrico (Jānis Apeinis) was the main person to profit from Lucia’s doubt and hesitation. Upon first meeting with the baritone, who shined most recently at Vanemuine as Escamillo, he left the impression of a character with a more stolid stage presence. However, the Latvian was in his element as Lucia’s violent brother – giving off a diabolical machismo though no stranger to humanity either. Vanemuine chorus artist German Gholami made his debut as Lucia’s betrothed Arturo. For now, his vocal abilities can’t be compared to the rest, but he won over the stage and the audience’s hearts effortlessly with his brilliant smile. The role of Alisa, sung by Karmen Puis, remained enigmatic, too, although I like Puis as both a soprano and a mezzo. In a small role, it is complicated to trace the contours of a distinct character. It’s easier to look for them in Alisa’s attire – corset and pencil skirt. Märt Jakobson’s (Raimondo Bidebent) Scottish kilt certainly didn’t explain anything. But on a personal level, the vocalist can consider it one of her greatest successes. With this flexible and nuanced character, the wealth of beautiful vocal material becomes all the more pliant in the hands of its owner. The young Rasmus Kull – a born actor – also gave an outstanding performance as Normanno. And I know there is much more potential concealed in his voice than we hear at present.

The Vanemuine chorus sang much better than, for instance, in the last production of Carmen. It was a joy to hear. Maestro Paul Mägi kept the singers and orchestra nicely in lockstep. The ensembles were developed in a congenial manner, a brilliant example being the final sextet in Act II. I revelled in the solos played by the reed instruments in the pit, which formed a fine combination with the vocals. Only in a few places did the orchestra overwhelm the singers. And gratitude goes out to the unnamed starring role – the acoustics in the 102-year-old Art Nouveau house’s chamber-like hall. Estonia’s best opera house!

There’s reason to be satisfied with the latest from Vanemuine. I wouldn’t want to predict an annual prize quite yet. I’ll be awaiting the autumn season with interest – it’s been said that the Estonian soloists will take over the main roles.