Lucia and madness – who chose whom?

Alvar Loog, opera critic

The creators of Vanemuine’s new production are director Roman Hovenbitzer and artist Roy Spahn from Germany – the same men who five years ago gave us a roguish take on Maria Stuarda masterfully set to music with imaginative stage design.

Similarly, their treatment of Lucia does not completely abandon the realism and romanticism of the source work, but it uses a theatrical second plane to try to add psychological complexity and novelty (dramaturgical additions), playfulness (anachronistic and eclectic costumes) and modern “artistry” from an author’s perspective (imaginary decorations and props with symbol status).

An extra-temporal opera

In comparing this Lucia di Lammermoor to the previous Estonian stage version that opened in the Grand Building of Vanemuine Theatre in 1999 and was directed by Taisto Noor, the latest interpretation almost completely lacks the scale and aristocratic glamour of grand opera.. Instead of a nobles’ castle, the relatively empty stage is decorated by one low riser, details resembling larger-than-life toys from a castle mock-up and high semi-circular papered wall with a large window.

The Scottish hills and valleys are represented by dark, empty surfaces that bear the message, in English, “Follow the blood” (who knows what the authors intend this relatively nonsensical poetic bit of wordplay to mean in the context of the work). Lucia’s bedroom is represented by a bed on wheels with white drapes.

While it has become common for the time period of classical operas to be shifted to the present or future, Vanemuine’s Lucia – out of a postmodernist desire for a wow-effect – goes down a rarely treaded side path. This story of 17th century Scottish nobles unfolds in a certain non-place, a topos vacuum, sort of like the chronotope of Alice in Wonderland.

The stage space lacks clear cultural markers and doors – the characters make their entrances and exits through a large window, the walls and the stage frame. While the tilted floor and giant picture frames of Vanemuine’s Maria Stuarda were essentially weight-bearing and visually imposing, the logic of the space created by designer Roy Spahn for Lucia seems a fairly novel and interesting impact in the context of a romantic-era opera, yet at once, barren and out of place.

Psychoanalysis, too

The director Hovenbitzer seems to be more of a Freudian than a sentimentalist, because in the triple tragedy of Lucia, he seems to be just as interested in the subconscious causes behind the behavioural trajectories and emotional patterns of the characters as he is in the bloody conclusion. Neither Donizetti’s librettist Salvadore Cammarano nor Walter Scott, who wrote the underlying novel, made sufficient efforts to highlight these aspects, of course.

In the childhood scene played out to “explain everything” in the prologue during the overture, Lucia’s brother Enrico tries to rape his sister, but a neighbour boy, Edgardo, intervenes. In the final scene, Hovenbitzer reveals Enrico as a crafty manipulator who lies to Edgardo saying that Lucia is dead, upon which Edgardo takes his own life.

The sworn enemies Enrico and Edgardo appear to be near-doppelgangers because of their costumes (both are wearing identical jackets with a pattern of protective patches). Is the director trying to indicate that the relationship of both men – the power-hungry brother and the besotted admirer – is identical; that both use Lucia as an instrument for selfish motives: one for his position in the court, the other in the interests of romantic love (which is always selfish)?

Yet both the production and the programme notes leave the impression that Hovenbitzer has not been able to decide what ultimately proved fateful for Lucia: an unhappy love, childhood trauma, a family curse or the games of power and love that men play? Vacillating between romantic sentimentalism, Freudianism, feminism and fatalism, he ultimately leans most toward the last one.

The most common interpretation is that the title character has to choose between her brother and her beloved – her heart and her duty – but her inability to decide short-circuits her emotional and intellectual programming. As a result, she chooses madness – due to survival instinct, as a kind of escape.

But in Hovenbitzer’s version, madness is the one who has chosen Lucia long ago (presumably due to the sexual psychotrauma experienced in childhood) and it is to become free of this that she chooses death. Confirming this interpretation, the director writes in the notes that “in the opening aria, Lucia already declares her love for Edgardo, her family’s enemy, as the inevitable destruction of her own existence.”

In the Vanemuine production, Lucia’s madness becomes personified on stage in the form of a wordless alter ego. Such a development, of course, pulls the carpet out from under the work’s lyrical line, and replaces romantic pathos with a psychoanalytical diagnosis, yet it does remain accounted for, dramatically substantial and visually compelling.

Aesthetics of children’s theatre

The other creative decisions made by Hovenbitzer don’t seem as fortuitous. While one could see playfulness in his Maria Stuarda of five years ago in the direction itself, this time it is apparent in the costumes. The costumes come of the aesthetic of children’s theatre and, seen against the production as a whole, live a life of their own in a merry and carefree, yet quite autistic manner.

How should the title role’s dramatic battle for love, freedom of decision and clear conscience be reconciled with the chorus, which consists of gnomes wearing work overalls, Rococo-style ruffled collars and green running shoes and quilted jackets in wolf’s masks waving croquet mallets? I realise that we’re talking about irony and allegory here. But in respect to what? Have the courtiers of a completely unknown old Scottish castle become the object of critical mockery?

In the scene depicting Lucia’s madness, the chorus embodies angels with green wings, continuing the same kind of kitsch aesthetic with which Hovenbitzer and Spahn also gilded the lily in the dramaturgical and emotional culmination scene of Maria Stuarda.

The entire visual idiom of Lucia flirts with the conventional stylistic devices of children’s theatre, giving symbol status to a castle model constructed of blocks, dolls, a stuffed rhino, stick horse, paper boat, wolf masks, etc..

No conflict or dialogue

Other than the bridal dress and knife, all of the inanimate objects on stage have been placed in quotation marks in one way or another. Hovenbitzer and Spahn have looked for a second plane and thereby a potential brand-new field of meaning in everything – in the set, props and costumes – but they have failed, like gamblers usually do. That’s because the connection between the technical means of annotation and the actual generation of meaning needs something else besides boldness, enterprise and happy accident – it requires a consistent and well-thought-through concept, and I feel the Germans lacked this.

It seems like they developed each character’s stage persona and each scene separately and, in the heat of their frenzy to create imagery, they often forgot the dramaturgical source material and the sense of the production as a whole. The interpretation that Hovenbitzer and Spahn offer us tries to be playful in an intellectual and modern way but it manages neither of these – no dialectic conflict or creative dialogue arises between the postmodernist artistic idiom of the production and unabashedly romantic original work.

If this production is to Donizetti’s opera what a drawn moustache is to a mummy, Vanemuine orchestra conductor Paul Mägi and soloists demonstrated that this mummy still lives and breathes, is quite spry and can appeal to audiences not because of but in spite of that moustache.

On a technical level, Hovenbitzer’s direction is very well integrated with the music and the design and imagery, which can be considered lightweight in both the semantic and physical sense, and allow the musical dramaturgy of Donizetti’s opera to have sway without detracting from it in any significant way.

Instead of prima donna opera, the premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Vanemuine was performed as an ensemble opera. The singers playing the demanding roles of the trio of lead characters – Henriette Bonde-Hansen from Denmark (Lucia), Jānis Apeinis from Latvia (Enrico) and Federico Lepere from Italy (Edgardo) gave us high-calibre, memorable vocal and dramatic performances.

Alongside the imported lead actors, Märt Jakobson’s deserved bravos for a small role of Raimondo. Karmen Puis (Alisa) and Rasmus Kull (Normanno) were no inferior. The only regular actor absent from the premiere was Germán Gholami (Arturo), due to a loss of voice. This autumn, the roles of Lucia and Edgardo are expected to be played by the young Vanemuine soloists Pirjo Jonas and Reigo Tamm.