Artistic inspiration comes from many sources, and when Lucia di Lammermoor director David Alden and set designer Charles Edwards first discussed their concept for the opera, they decided to set it in the early Victorian period. And as the opera is loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, Scottish and Gothic influences came into play as well.
In Edwards’ travels, he came upon an English manor home, Normansfield, and knew instantly that this would be the source of inspiration for the set. Dr. John Langdon Down and his wife Mary founded a private hospital in the building after purchasing it in 1868.
Down studied and classified a condition that later became known as Down’s syndrome and he lived and worked in the building, converting it to an asylum for patients with Down’s syndrome and various mental health challenges.
Interestingly, this hospital housed a small theatre which was used to entertain the patients as well as have them take an active role onstage. At a time when people dealing with mental health issues were often relegated to the streets or gawked at in sideshows, Down used the theatre to help heal and restore his patients.
It was Normansfield’s combination of a theatre and an asylum that appealed to Alden and Edwards, and a shallow theatre proscenium is used on the Lucia set.
Alden says, “We have imagined the home more in a state of neglect and decay, a Victorian relic of an old house.” Edwards adds, “When these huge Victorian institutions were built they often looked very intimidating and had connotations of prisons. Once they became a bit dilapidated they looked like haunted houses and the sense of the supernatural was palpable.”
This feeds naturally into the twisted atmosphere in which Lucia and her brother Enrico exist. With no parental influence, the two live alone and try desperately to cope with creditors and the decay around them. Edwards says, “The house becomes almost a playground for these two who are barely more than children, yet have adult responsibilities. There is always something very eerie and gothic about the opera, no matter the production, but in using Normansfield as a touchstone we were able to give Lucia a slightly more disturbing psychological angle to match what lurks in the music.”
The Langdon Down Centre is the theatre wing of the old Normansfield Hospital. The centre houses the Normansfield Victorian Theatre, the Langdon Down Museum, the national office of the Down Syndrome Association and the Down Syndrome International. Visit the website here.
Photos: (top) Dr. John Langdon Down; (middle) Normansfield North Wing Drive; (middle) Barry Banks as Edgardo and Anna Christy as Lucia in English National Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, 2008. Photo: Clive Barda; (bottom) Normansfield Victorian Theatre. Photo by Dennis Turner.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001