Without much ado, yet another major opera has hit the stage at the Vanemuine Theatre

Monika Helme

Without much ado, yet another major opera has hit the stage at the Vanemuine Theatre, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a bel canto masterpiece. Although the rumour mill was buzzing recently about plans footed again by the Ministry of Culture to close the Vanemuine’s opera side, it still hasn’t come about ever since back when Kaarel Ird was having “communist-to-communist” discussions about the topic in Tallinn. The Vanemuine folks are bravely continuing to do ambitious work in their small house. And they have once again hit the nail on the head when it comes to justifying their existence.

Lucia di Lammermoor, which had its premiere on 2 April in Tartu, has posed challenges for vocalists and directors for close to 200 years. The opera’s libretto has allowed social change to interpreted in an intriguing vein for new generations of audiences. This Vanemuine version is no exception. The recent trend seems to be about using opera overtures to tell the audience the story even before it unfolds in the libretto, but Roman Hovenbitzer cracks his main directorial leitmotif by showing us a fragment from Lucia’s childhood. A young girl playing with stuffed animals and toys involves her big brother into the game. The charming idyll is supplanted by a shocking scene where the brother tries to rape his sister. The situation is only saved when another young man rushes into the room, and chases her brother off. This astonishing introduction to the opera determines the course of the plotline to come and offers contemporary viewers an understandable explanation for how Lucia’s state of mind develops right up to the madness of the finale. In this sense, Hovenbitzer’s idea is genius – thanks to their introspective experiments and psychological soul-searching, 21st century people are long aware of the fact that we are all products of our childhood. Our experiences at an early age can haunt us and influence our destinies much later than we dare to admit. So maybe we don’t need to delve all that deeply into incomprehensible oppositions that come from inter-clan feuds (Tammsaare’s Andres and Pearu have described this theme enough for Estonians) or the feminist interpretation of how female initiative is suppressed in the man’s world we inhabit. The new reality is all around us in daily news – family violence, paedophilia, incest and sexual exploitation. Or the intrusion of a different cultural space into Europe, where arranged marriages and a male-centred world are daily phenomena that we would like to be long forgotten. In this context, a woman going mad is completely logical; and watching the opera, you realize that humankind has always, in human relationships, teetered on the border between the acceptable and the off-limits. Today we are just seeing new attempts to shift the boundaries, new oppositions, a new societal insanity. Nothing new under the sun.

The stage designer: Roy Spahn (Germany) has worked in sync with the director’s ideas. The visual power in the context of the storytelling is strong and keeps the viewer’s senses keen by slipping in all sorts of hints with details both big and small. Lucia’s whole dollhouse world is constantly obliquely within the performance and that helps the viewer to understand the background behind Lucia’s psychological collapse. The visual concept for the chorus did remain a little unclear. The world of LOTR and the Hobbit doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story, and the satin green cloaks are downright distracting in scenes where everyone else’s emotions are running high and Donizetti’s amazingly beautiful music is summoning forth the tears. But all the other details, the dolls, hobby horse, unicorn, paper boats, castle tower models, family painting are appropriate and effective. We also still see open flame on stage, real candles and a flesh and blood ghost played by Marika Aidla instead of modern holograms. All this is, somehow, honest and beautiful. The spring-box could have perhaps been handled so that the noise from lifting off and pushing back in place the heavy wooden covers would not have interfered with the enjoyment of the music and the set changes could have also taken place with less thumps and crashes. But the stage equipment in Vanemuine’s Small House is positively ancient, so we’ll forgive them.

What’s ultimately important is that in this small city of Tartu (don’t even think of using the word “provincial theatre”) with its relatively modest means, people have managed to create art on a European level. Director Roman Hovenbitzer, designer Roy Spahn and lighting designer Ulrich Schneider are all from Germany and international crowd is also in the majority among the singers, supported every bit as respectably by the solid Vanemuine singers.

Playing the part of Lucia, the Dane Henriette Bonde-Hansen is slight, vulnerable, sensitive, and as a figure on stage, extremely congenial, even as a woman she remains the child playing with dolls. Her beautiful, even and strong vocals filled the entire performance without creating the impression even for an instant that Lucia’s very demanding part would pose any difficulty for her. Perhaps she could have gone for the highest notes in some of the coloratura parts, but considering that she is a lyrical soprano, not a coloratura, it’s understandable. In the first act, which is full of action and details, Lucia seemed a bit brittle but the more static scenes in the second act gave her more opportunity to display her vocals, and brought stability. And it was fortunate that there weren’t any piercings, blue eye shadow or frizzy hair in the crucial scene, just a beautiful full-blooded woman, who in exalted, solemn fashion lets it be known to everyone that the wages of sin and violence are death and madness.

The Latvian Jānis Apeinis did a splendid job playing Lord Enrico Ashton. He was very responsive and fluid in following the leitmotif provided by the director; he did not stick to stock-in-trade bel canto-era heroic acting methods, and came off as a total modern-day sociopath. He was convincing in acting out his sinful but forbidden passion for his sister and signalled that the grudge that Enrico bore Edgardo did not come from an old family feud but the more simple fact that Edgardo was the one who had intervened in their youth to save the honour of Enrico’s sister. “Feeble-minded!” is the only, passionless exclamation from the sociopath Enrico when Edgardo kills himself. The shame of his youth was avenged. In terms of vocals, Apeinis was one of the stronger players, especially in ensemble scenes. Federico Lepre in the role of Edgardo was only slightly off that high mark. His pleasant timbre seemed a bit weak alongside the other lead roles and when expressing his feelings, he descended somewhat to the level of cliché. Those circles made with the hands when one is talking about one’s feelings of love… Our own Estonian Märt Jakobson offered an equal partnership to the Latvians, Italian and Dane; he was an all-around surprise. Tall men, especially basses, often tend to seem static and angular on stage, but in the role of Lucia’s chaplain and tutor, Raimondo Bidebenti, Märt carried it off well. His natural, sensitive stage movements and fluid, flexible cantilena, full of overtones, was especially enjoyable in the higher register. The head of the watch, Rasmus Kull, melded nicely into the ranks of consistently strong vocalists and Karmen Puis sang her allotted short phrases with her well-known excellence. The vocally most inconsistent was Germán Gholami in the role of Lord Arturi, but his timbre was pleasant and we can only concur with the oohs and aahs of the women perambulating during the intermission: “Such as handsome man!!!”

The conductor Paul Mägi was as sensitive and precise as always in his control of the orchestra, and the occasional turbulence with the stage performers should probably be attributed to the opening-night jitters. The chorus should really work a bit on their Italian pronunciation; that was the only thing that brought a local dimension to this major Donizetti opera.

To sum up, I would remind all fans of opera in Tallinn that it takes just as long to get to Tartu as it does from Tartu to Tallinn and that Lucia di Lammermoor at the Vanemuine is worth seeing under any circumstance. Wonderfully beautiful music, an international cast of soloists on stage and our own high-calibre Estonian singers deserve a hearty ovation, cries of bravo, flowers and acclaim.