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Donizetti,  Lucia di Lammermoor: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Paul Daniel. 19.2. 2008 (CC)

In a sense, the cover of the programme booklet for this Lucia says it all. Almost but not quite in black and white, there is a hopelessness to the photo of the little girl that is most disturbing. The concept is continued into the production. Raising Donizetti to the level of quasi-Wagnerian psycho-drama may seem ambitious, but one thing is for certain. It results in fine theatre.

Stage colours are esssentially black, or dark, and white (but with the light used to emphasise the dark). Only the red of blood adds variety. Once the murder has taken place, Lucia appears with her white dress soiled with fresh blood. When she turns to reveal the extent of the spillage, it is a truly shocking moment.

The part of the titular heroine was taken by Anna Christy, who is making her ENO debut. David Alden, the director, sees Lucia as a child moving into adulthood (implied incest with Enrico further added to the disturbing nature of events). Thus toys are in evidence on stage; also, Lucia's attire is decidedly girly. Her voice, too, initially seemed light – again, presumably to fit in with the youth angle. No Callas here, but deliberately so, for it was this Lucia's fragility that was to the fore. One thing Christy has, though, is agility, something vital in this repertoire, and particularly in the Act 3 Mad Scene. Christy maintained the tension of this crucial, and extended, scene in masterly fashion.

Mark Stone has impressed as a superb Giovanni in the past, and his assumption of the role of Enrico Ashton (Lucia's brother) brought another creditable performance. His swagger and natural confidence suited the role well, and of all the cast it was Stone who had the most stage presence. His diction, too, was exemplary in a line-up that generally made the surtitles a superfluity.

Clive Bayley was due to sing the part of the chaplain, Raimondo, but illness meant that the part was taken by Paul Whelan. Although Bayley has impressed in the past, it is good to make mention of the (very tall!) Whelan's excellence. Barry Banks took the part of the bridegroom, Edgardo. Banks, who is a regular on the wonderul Opera Rara label, was a kilt-wearing dandy, a groom whose anger at the end of Act 2 was completely believable. This was a long way from his hammy contribution to Christine Brewer's otherwise excellent Chandos showcase disc.

Michael Colvin was a rather bleaty Normanno. A special mention is due, however, to mezzo Sarah Pring's Alisa. Pring was strong in both voice and presence. I hope to hear and see more of her as her ENO repertoire grows.

Paul Daniel is a conductor whose ENO appearances have resulted in a decidedly mixed bag. His Wagner always seemed weak, yet his Britten Midsummer Night's Dream and Rape of Lucretia were memorable. As the bel canto repertoire has been under-represented at the Coliseum in recent times, this Lucia was an unknown quantity. As it was, Daniel 's conducting was focussed and even inspiring, with few of the ragged orchestral ends that characterised his Wagner performances. The storm at the opening of the final act was visceral rather than marked by bombast, while Daniel brought appropriately dark timbres to the Prelude to Act 2.  The time away from his old stomping ground has clearly brought freshness to the relationship between conductor and his players.

There is a tremendously informed booklet note by Roger Parker, a scholar based at King's College London who also, along with Gabriele Dotto, edited the critical version of the score that was presented here.  This is unmissable drama, representing ENO at its very peak. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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