Fading Dreams

Ask any opera lover the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Lucia di Lammermoor, and the answer is sure to be a wide-eyed soprano in a blood-soaked wedding dress, doing her best to look deranged as she chews the scenery in the repertory’s most famous mad scene. This season at the Met, however, Lucia will look a little different, as Australian director Simon Stone—renowned for his audacious re-imaginings of classic works—makes his company debut with a new staging that aims to cut through the clichés and find contemporary relevance in Donizetti’s classic tragedy.

In Stone’s production, the familiar story of a young woman manipulated by her abusive brother into marriage, madness, and murder is moved from 18th-century Scotland to a struggling present-day locale somewhere in America’s Rust Belt. The director describes the setting as “the wasteland of free-market capitalism”—a kind of Anytown, U.S.A., populated by characters grasping for an American Dream that has passed them by.

Extraordinary soprano Nadine Sierra stars as an opioid-addicted Lucia who yearns for a better life, opposite tenor phenomenon Javier Camarena as her secret lover Edgardo—both making major Met role debuts. Riccardo Frizza takes the podium for the April 23 premiere, which also features baritone Artur Ruciński as Lucia’s brother Enrico, who forces her to marry for money, with disastrous consequences. Speaking with the Met’s Matt Dobkin, Stone explained why he thinks audiences will be “exhilarated by how close their own experience, or that of their fellow Americans, can be to grand opera.”

Simon_Stone_Credit Reinhard Maximilian Werner.jpgSimon Stone

What attracts you to Lucia?
First, the music is extraordinary and incredibly moving. But also, I think the opera gives us a chance to tell a contemporary American story. One unattractive thing about 19th-century Italian opera is that it’s often about male honor and dignity and that the women in the stories become victims of that male pride. But we’re living in a time today when the patriarchy is starting to be called into question, especially in terms of the mechanisms that it uses to control women—both subtly, in terms of coercive control, and very explicitly, in terms of laws that control women’s rights and women’s bodies. So I thought that Lucia would be a great opportunity to participate in that conversation and confront the simultaneous absurdity and danger of the idea that a man’s pride is more important than a woman’s life.

Once you had decided to reframe the story in present-day America, how did you land on setting it in the Rust Belt?
In Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, and in Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto, there’s a clear setting: the Scottish Highlands, in an era when the local aristocracy was running out of money and coming to a point of desperation and insignificance in relationship to the rest of Britain. That sense of encroaching poverty immediately led me to look at the areas in contemporary America with heavy job loss and loss of traditional sources of work—where industries have died. In these areas, there are many people who struggle with the notion of protecting their families’ tradition, protecting the history of who they are. Especially men, growing up expecting that they were going to take over the family job and that their life was going to essentially be very similar to the lives of their grandparents: two cars, a house, comfort—the basic dream of the average middle class or upper working-class guy in America. It’s always in these moments, where men feel that they and their sources of income are threatened, that misogyny and patriarchal abuses resurge.

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What is it that interests you in exploring these conditions?
I’m interested in the way the death of the capitalist dream for certain people intersects with the rise of intolerant and abusive attitudes. Because of course you don’t subscribe to a dream once you feel like it’s lied to you. You immediately think there’s a conspiracy behind that. If you’re a middle-aged white guy in the Rust Belt, you grew up in a world that promised you way, way more, and those promises are coming up hugely short. For that person, anyone else’s feelings of betrayal or abuse can’t compete with his own sense of loss from the position he lived in earlier to where he’s landed. So you have capitalist systems, which only care about profit, abusing workers, who in turn become perpetrators of abuse against other members of society, especially women. It’s a sad, vicious cycle.

How have you, along with set designer Lizzie Clachan and costume designer Alice Babidge, portrayed this decay of the American dream on stage?
The aesthetic is essentially boarded-up houses that used to be the pride of a street, the supermarket that has hardly any customers, the pawn shop where people go to sell their grandparents’ belongings. It’s the pharmacy where you pick up your methadone or OxyContin, the swings in the park where you go to get high, and the drive-in cinema. And it’s the motel where you meet your boyfriend for a tryst because your brother made a blood oath that he’ll never let you see that guy ever again because of an old family feud. The costumes are an extension of that world—tracksuits and the stuff you wear to be comfortable, but also what you wear when you’ve decided to go out at 11PM to meet your secret lover, and you want to look fantastic. And, of course, there’s going to be a wedding dress in Act III. That’s unavoidable.

How do the characters of the opera fit into this troubled modern culture?
Lucia is an outsider who moves through that world and feels no connection to it, feels completely disgusted by its principles and its priorities—the classic story of someone who wants to get out. And we follow her subjective journey, sometimes using video by projection designer Luke Halls, to be with her even when she’s not on stage. Also, in the second act, you see her on Facebook talking to Edgardo, who’s joined the military and gone overseas because he can’t find any other work. He wants to marry Lucia, and for them to get out together, so he makes the sacrifice to earn some money. You see the backstory of how they’ve been writing to each other, and how they’re in love, at the same time that Lucia’s brother Enrico is organizing her arranged marriage downstairs.

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One topic that figures prominently in your staging is drug use—specifically opioid abuse. How did you decide to make Lucia addicted to OxyContin? Is it to help with the plausibility of the mad scene?
Well, I didn’t want her to go mad just because she had to marry the wrong person. There is a series of steps at which a person has to be neglected by society before she is committed to an asylum. So essentially, I wanted to portray a more complex journey than just that she was made to choose between one of two men, and being with the wrong one turned her into a psychopathic killer. The drug addiction does help with the mad scene, but more importantly, I want some people to think: “Of course you ended up killing that guy. You’ve been subtly, casually abused on a daily basis by the men in your life.”

So you see Lucia’s story as an entirely believable scenario?
Yes, this is unfortunately a typical, representative story of people who suffer years of coercive control—of not being allowed to leave the house, of being told exactly when and where they can go to sleep, when and where they can eat. One day, that person wakes up and kills their partner or their husband. Women in those situations don’t have access to the kind of help they need, and we don’t recognize how coercive control can really be the equivalent of incredibly violent control.

It sounds like you’re determined that audiences really feel the forces acting on Lucia’s mind.
The sense of dependency linking Lucia to the men in her life is for me really important. In a contemporary world, we can’t simply tell a story about a woman who is being told what to do by her family. In order to create the level of empathy we need for a woman forced into a marriage, who kills her new husband on their wedding night, we have to see the pathology of the moments leading up to that. We need to see her as someone already trying to escape, trying to not feel, trying to be elsewhere—but also realizing that she relies on her brother for the little money their family still has. He controls it, so he controls her. So we meet her broken, and we watch the men succeed in finishing her. Thank God she takes one of them down on the way.

Are you able to find some beauty amid the darkness of this opera?
Absolutely. We can’t just put grime all over, without letting moments of great romance come out. The setting is grim, but the characters aren’t ready to let go of the possibility of finding happiness, and I think that creates an incredibly romantic underpinning of a fading dream. To me, that’s the way Donizetti’s score sounds, as well. He creates a sense of nostalgia from the get-go—the music of fading dreams. What’s so beautiful about these great Italian tragic operas is that they feel like they’re already over when they start, and what you see is the struggle to revitalize and to rejuvenate something that is slipping away, about to be lost forever.

Interview by Matt Dobkin
Edited by Jay Goodwin