In 1964 the literary critic Susan Sontag published the definitive work “On Camp”’ in which she defined the genre as loving “the unnatural, the artificial, the exaggerated.” In art, Camp’s exaggeration proceeds from both passion and naiveté, both of which opera director Simon Stone employed in his production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera..
“When something is just bad (rather than Camp),” she writes, “it’s often because the artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. “ She continues, “the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. “
Camp is art that proposes itself seriously. but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.”
The ultimate Camp statement is: “it’s good because it’s awful.”
Perhaps Mr. Stone has deliberately chosen to create a camp version of Lucia di Lammermoor. How else explain the drive-in movie theatre which is showing a 1947 Bob Hope film noir parody – My Favorite Brunette? This element in his production may be his signal of his camp intention.
Opera is the theatrical art form elevating sound above all other senses. Everything on stage must serve to clarify, elevate, and focus the audience on the music. Mr. Stone seems to want our attention anywhere other than on the music. Vision is the primary human sense, and so Mr. Stone overloads the stage with visual stimuli, none of which does anything but block the audience’s appreciation of the music and musicians.
Stone’s production demonstrates that no one involved in its creation has learned anything from over 50 years of experience combining filmed and live performers on stage. In every case, the audience has chosen to watch the filmed performers rather than the live performers.
Then why bother with live performers? It seems for no other reason than that you need live performers to be able to call what you are doing an “opera.” Mr. Stone and his production team care little, if at all, about the confusion the simultaneous Reality TV film, live acting, the rotating stage, and the intruding film crew create. Perhaps Stone was hoping that the ensuing chaos and confusion would hide the ludicrous elements in the recasting of the Lucia story to 1980s Rust Belt America.
One of the hallmarks of a great work of art is unity. Unity is the connection of all the constituent parts in such a way that each element reinforces the other. In a story, whether narrative or dramatic, the given circumstances – the time and place- give rise to unique characters, who, in turn, evidence their unique ways of moving, dressing, speaking and singing. To change any one of the elements in a unified work of art ruins the whole piece.
Lucia di Lammermoor is set in a particular place at a particular time. Donizetti’s characters are products of each. Their thoughts and actions are organic to the circumstances. The opera, as the novel, is set in ancient rural Scotland, a place of horse riding, falconers, kings and queens, wild boar hunting, the sending of postal letters, the signing of marriage contracts, the bearing of swords, dueling, and primogeniture inheritance laws. Torches illuminate dark castle spaces. The world of Lucia di Lammermoor is a vitally Christian world.
To tamper with any of these items is to begin to unravel the inner workings of the whole piece.
Stone has tampered with all of them.
Stone has changed the time and place and all of the associated elements. Consequently the original textual references to the original time and place are anachronistic and contradictory to what is seen. Stone has “solved” that problem by eliminating and rewriting the text to suit his, his new invented given circumstances.
Why change the circumstances of the opera? Is there any evidence that theater-goers aren’t “getting” the opera in its traditional mode of production? No. Operabase reports that Lucia Di Lammermoor, out of all of the thousands of operas in the world repertoire, is the nineteenth most produced opera in the world.
The reason for his changes is, of course, that, as an opponent of Western Civilization’s cultural legacy, and of capitalism in particular, Mr. Stone seeks yet another chance to, as he puts it, show “the death of the capitalist dream.” (A dream which may be dying in Mr. Stone’s capital-seeking imagination, but not in the minds of the thousands of world citizens fleeing from socialism to our southern border seeking their chance in America’s enviable economic system.)
Absurdities abound. Why is the window the only means of access to the house’s second floor? How is it possible for certain technologies to exist in Stone’s world which hadn’t been invented yet? Why, during Lucia’s famous twenty minute mad scene does Stone taunt the blood-soaked heroine with a gaggle of pink-tuxedoed, blood-soaked zombie Arturos, and a live appearance of the girl who killed herself? Why force Lucia to deliver her aria to scenic detritus as the revolving stage makes yet another orbit?
Pity and fear used to be the requisite emotional responses to tragic characters, even with Romantic Tragedy. But in Stone’s production an overwhelming sense of dirty voyeurism moves the pity and fear to the audience members watching the updated opera being mindlessly butchered before their eyes. The onstage camera crews seem to serve no other purpose than help facilitate the audience’s Brechtian alienation from the action on stage.
Fortunately , Met HD director Gary Halvorson saves the distant HD audience from the visual confusion experienced by the in-person audience by shooting the opera with mostly closeups of the singing actors. He thus spares the world audience the multi-media horror show confronting the in person audience. A more astute stage director would know how to stage a close up simply by positioning the performers.
Unfortunately, some of Stone’s media hijinks seeped into Halvorson’s frame to ruin the focus. For example, black and white film clips of the original priest, Matthew Rose, rather than the actor playing the priest, Christian Van Horn, are shown. In fact, too many black and white film clips break up Lucia’s long aria, thereby depriving soprano Nadine Sierra, one of the world’s premiere interpreters of the role, the opportunity to reveal the her piece’s arc as an undisturbed whole. This outrage follows an earlier one when Stone chose to show a black and white video of the murdered girl, while Sierra merely provided background vocals for the worthless video.
It is unfortunate that some of the most talented musicians in the operatic world are reduced to supporting Mr. Stone’s ego. None of the performances receive the dramatic focus they deserve. Ms. Sierra, when given the chance, shows she doesn’t need Mr. Stone’s bright ideas to create a powerful and moving portrait. She creates the old-fashioned way- she delves into Donizetti’s music, exploring every nuance it provides to create a compelling psychological musical drama. At times it seems she has an endless supply of both air and energy. Despite the obstacles Stone imposed on her, Sierra’s Mad Scene was a vocal tour de force, albeit distinct from those of Callas and Sutherland. Sierra’s Lucia is a sweet conventional girl, without much hint of madness until the madness sets in.
Likewise Javier Camarena’s singing throughout the evening was expressive and beautiful. He is usually a joy to watch. This time he was irresistible. He showed great force with some thrilling runs as well as long phrases, especially in his duets. In the final scene, “Fra poco a me ricovero”, Camarena sang some of his most beautiful phrases, with delicate tones that transmitted this character’s suffering. His “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” was elegant and precise.
Artur Ruciński was a strutting rooster of a villian, desperate and despicable, as Enrico. He took command of the stage from his first appearance. . Ruciński’s voice was of an easy elegance and suavete, at one with the Polish baritone’s athleticism..
Christian van Horn gave the role a futile earnestness, while singing on a par with the rest of the stellar cast, despite having little or no rehearsal.
The story of Lucia was based on a real-life incident involving the Honorable Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the first Lord Stair, Lord Rutherford, and Dunbar of Baldoon. Though the tale was based on real events, Donizetti’s opera never aspired to be, nor was it ever placed, in the category of verismo, the realistic opera which followed Romanticism, usually featuring the poor characters of Stone’s imagination.
In fact, over time Lucia di Lammermoor gathered the patina of a fairy tale, a “once-upon-a-time” story like Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette or Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
However, the Metropolitan Opera’s director Simon Stone had a different take on the famous opera. Though the Scots treasured land as both source of wealth and status, Stone abandons that element of the Scott and Donizetti story to, as he says, set the play in “a present-day American Rust Belt, an area once prosperous but now fallen into decline and neglect”
I doubt Mr. Stone has ever been in the so-called Rust Belt. His setting and characters reveal no research, beyond cliches. His investigation seems to have gone no further than a Netflix subscription.
Thank God for the cast of superlative sining actors and the camera work of video director Gary Halvorson. The HD broadcast could have been worse
As it is, Stone’s Lucia should find its place on the shelf next to Claus Guth’s 2017 La Boheme at the Paris Opera – the Boheme in outer space.