When the Metropolitan Opera engaged Simon Stone to create a new staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, it marked the company’s fourth production in thirty years. Would the Australian auteur fare better than Francesca Zambello, Nicolas Joël, or Mary Zimmerman, whose previous outings in this cornerstone of the bel canto repertory faced general derision and relatively short shelf lives?
Stone’s presence certainly ushers in a new school of thought at the opera house, one that is closer to the personenregie style favored in Europe. The Met has largely shied away from radical reinterpretations of the standard repertory, perhaps in deference to their conservative audience (and donor base). His Lucia, which transports the opera’s action from the moors of Scotland to contemporary Appalachia, will surely ruffle some feathers. The creative team earned their fair share of boos at the opening night curtain call.
Audiences familiar with Stone’s theatrical works will recognize some of his favorite tricks redeployed here. As in his adaptation of Medea that played BAM in 2020, he frequently uses tracking cameras that offer a projected cinematic perspective of what’s already happening onstage. A movie screen dominates the top half of the Met’s famously high proscenium, alternating live and prerecorded images; the cameras come and go throughout the opera’s three acts. The juxtaposition is often striking and sometimes makes sense, as when the crew arrives to film Lucia’s unhappily arranged marriage in the second act. Yet Stone and his collaborators, including projection designer Luke Halls and set designer Lizzie Clachan, haven’t entirely figured out how to integrate the filmic element into the dramaturgy.
At the top of the performance, a title card flashes across the stage, giving the opera a suggestive subtitle: “Closeups of a Cursed Life.” The curtain rises on Nadine Sierra consciously being filmed as Lucia, with standing lights and a cinematographer seemingly giving direction. This suggests that we’re watching actors and artists making a movie—a choice seemingly concerned in a postlude to the third-act Mad Scene, when Sierra breaks character, looks straight into the monitor, and instructs the audience to stop clapping. But the idea of a movie set is dropped frequently, and the effect often feels like a director falling back on a familiar aesthetic device.
Stone and Clachan also employ split-level set pieces that allow multiple perspectives to play out at once. This can also be effective, but after a while, it strains the attention span. Clachan, who designed the strikingly spare set for Stone’s acclaimed Yerma, populates the stage here with shorthand signifiers of rundown American life: pawn shops, methadone clinics, fast-food restaurants, and pay-by-the-hour motels. This self-consciously trashy world spins around on a turntable, which leads to some nonsensical dramatic business: Why are the chorus walking through Lucia’s wedding chamber? Why does there seem to be a truck parked in someone’s living room?
In the past, Stone’s productions have been high on concept and low on acting specificity. Unfortunately, he translates that style to the opera as well. His direction of the chorus, dressed by Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón as downtrodden townspeople, is largely presentational and declamatory. Occasionally, one of the roving cameras catches a face with an interesting expression, but that level of idiosyncrasy would otherwise be lost to the audience.
The principal singers delivered similarly generalized characterizations. Sierra does little to suggest Lucia’s slip into madness as she’s used as a pawn by her brother to replenish the family’s fortune. This is partially Stone’s fault—he foolishly literalizes the act-one narrative aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” making Lucia’s ghostly vision of a murdered woman into a reality, represented by a supernumerary stabbed before her eyes. His equivocation on the frame narrative also leaves questions about whether we’re watching Sierra as Lucia or as an actor portraying Lucia. But her performance largely lacked a range of emotion, especially during the curiously bland Mad Scene, which she performed with all the dramatic engagement of a vocalise.
Sierra handled the vocal demands admirably but not flawlessly. Pitch problems hampered her trills in the first act, and during the long Mad Scene, she had a tendency to slip staccato notes into her coloratura runs. The tonal color of her voice took on a steely edge in higher passages, and she seemed occasionally taxed by conductor Riccardo Frizza’s overly fleet tempi.
Javier Camarena turned in an honorable performance as Edgardo, Lucia’s secret fiancé, although his famously reliable high notes emerged with a more nasal quality than I’ve heard before. Tricked out with face tattoos and a holstered gun, Artur Ruciński looked menacing as Lucia’s brother Enrico but acted without much flair. The superb bass Matthew Rose gave the most musically and dramatically committed performance as the clergyman Raimondo, styled here as a small-town priest. Small roles were taken without much distinction by Deborah Nansteel (Alisa), Alok Kumar (Normanno), and Eric Ferring (Arturo).
Met general manager Peter Gelb is smart to employ directors like Stone and Ivo van Hove, whose production of Don Giovanni will debut next season. They bring a perspective that the company has ignored for too long, and they challenge notions of what classic opera should look like. But Stone’s first outing is too muddled and inconsistent to make a lasting impression. I would have preferred true unhinged madness to light shock.