Be ready for blood: soprano issues warning to faint-hearted opera fans

After unease about the gory staging, Diana Damrau defends a radical approach to Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride: that is the message to Covent Garden customers in a Royal Opera House warning about the explicit and upsetting content of its new production of the 19th-century gothic romance Lucia di Lammermoor.

Now the internationally admired German soprano Diana Damrau, who will play the lead, has also urged caution, while staunchly defending the violence and realism of the planned staging. “I think audiences are going to leave feeling quite shaken,” said Damrau, at the end of a “draining” week of rehearsals before her first appearance in the role at Covent Garden. “They will see what people in desperate circumstances are able to do and that is actually the basis of this drama. Everybody is desperate and it gets very dark and very sad and horrible. So, I am sorry, be ready for blood.”

Donizetti’s dramatic masterpiece of 1835 is a classic of the repertoire, but this time it is directed by Katie Mitchell, the woman who provoked strong reactions from audiences at the National Theatre last month with her disturbing production of Sarah Kane’s play Cleansed.

Damrau argues that the opera’s story of madness and murder dictates some stage violence and that Mitchell’s radical approach, which involves splitting the stage in two, satisfies a modern demand for emotional credibility. “It is a violent opera,” she said. “There is a lot of emotional violence, as well as real violence. I kill somebody! And there is a lot of anger and tension. It is actually about a state of war between two families.”

The German star has played the part seven times and most of those productions have been conventional, she said, although last year in Munich the opera was set in the 1950s. The role, which involves vocal gymnastics, high notes and the difficult “mad scene” aria, helped to make the name of the late Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, and was also played to acclaim by Maria Callas.

“It has the most beautiful singing and music,” said Damrau, 44, “but I think this warning had to be given, because I have six-year-old fans whose families send them to see me in Traviata.

“I would say, don’t send them to see Lucia because it is very realistic and it is going to be violent: more than in normal Lucias. And this is not something a younger audience should see. An older audience can take it – they are not in danger – but they will see something very strong.”

The Opera House’s warning follows complaints and controversy last year over a graphic rape scene in Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. After last week’s advice to ticket holders that “the team’s approach will lead to scenes that feature sexual acts portrayed on stage and other scenes that – as you might expect from the story of Lucia – feature violence”, 40 refunds were reportedly requested, but sales are still going strong.

The libretto is loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novel The Bride of Lammermoor and Mitchell has set it in Donizetti’s own early 19th-century period. The mood, Damrau promises, will be heavily laden with foreboding and the sense of a dark, cold Scottish landscape outside.

The boldest element of the new staging comes in Mitchell’s decision to divide the action so that one half of the stage has the singing scenes, while the other shows what would normally be imagined happening off stage.

“The work with Katie Mitchell is very interesting and tough. She is super-intelligent and we are going into the fine-tuning now, as the two halves have to be like clockwork. She really wants to tell the story of Lucia and not to make her a victim. And that is something I am right behind. Absolutely. Lucia is fighting like a man,” said Damrau.

The singer, who will hand over the role to soprano Aleksandra Kurzak in May, defends a director’s right to interpret challenging material.

After all, she says, the British composer Iain Bell composed an opera for Damrau, A Harlot’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s lewd etchings. “In that, my character was beaten up and raped and then gave birth in prison and died in a syphilitic mad scene. But it was in the pictures. And Lucia di Lammermoor has this story. Our time is longing for more layers and for more realistic portrayals.”

The madness suffered by Lucia in this production will be a little different, said the soprano. The heroine, who sees visions throughout, will be a stronger, less innocent character who buckles when she is betrayed.

“In this production, she is not a teenage girl being married off by her family, who has nothing to say. She is her own woman and knows what is happening. In this terrible situation, she is forced to act and react, and that is the difference to the usual Lucia. There is a lot of thinking involved,” she said.

“It is the most difficult role. You can never relax, but there are wonderful melodies where you really think time is standing still. That is the magic of Lucia.”


■ A Royal Opera House production of Guillaume Tell, directed by Damiano Michieletto last June, was heckled for incorporating a scene where a young woman is stripped naked and molested by army officers.

■ Audience members booed the Opera House’s 2012 adaptation of Dvorák’s Rusalka, directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, which cast the Little Mermaid as a prostitute trapped in a brothel.

■ The Royal Opera’s 2014 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, directed by Martin Kusej, was booed by audience members who disliked its use of a giant rubber shark as a symbol of persecution and scenes depicting children armed with machine guns.

■ Five audience members at the National Theatre in February fainted watching Cleansed, a play about sadism which contained scenes of torture, rape and violence. Its director, Katie Mitchell, is also the director of Lucia di Lammermoor.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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