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Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor (Rafal Olbinski)
09 Oct 2007

The Met’s New Lucia

Of Donizetti’s fifty or so “serious” operas, Lucia di Lammermoor was the only one to survive his heyday almost unscathed by change of fashion; today, when a dozen of his other worthy works have been restored to the repertory, Lucia easily hangs on.

Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera, 5 October 2007

Above: Lucia di Lammermoor by Rafal Olbinski


The reasons are clear: Donizetti and his librettist, Cammarano, were stage-wise pros and their work, boiled down from a verbose Walter Scott novel, is a tight dramatic ship as well as tunefully irresistible. The sextet has been called the most famous ensemble in opera, but it does not come from nowhere — it bursts logically from a nervous situation, and the scene that follows propels the excitement to a teetering high. Coloraturas prove themselves on the Fountain Scene and the Mad Scene, but the latter, too, is the logical result of all that has gone before. The Tomb Scene that follows may be anticlimactic, but its beauty has lured many a great tenor to attempt to steal the show.

The Met has always loved Lucia; every notable Lucia of the last 124 years has sung it there. This season’s new production is the fourth to play the New Met; its look is handsome and conservative to suit the taste of the American opera audience. The era has been warped to the late nineteenth century for no obvious reason, though it does permit Natalie Dessay to wear a tight Empress Sisi riding habit in Act I and glamorous red silk in Act II. (I thought the Ashtons were strapped for money?) In the Met’s previous Lucia, properly set two hundred years earlier, zaftig Ruth Ann Swenson was unattractively got up as one of Charles II’s bare-breasted floozies, but Dessay is the raison d’être of the show — her maddened face is all over New York, on every news and subway kiosk — and she presumably had more influence with the costume shop. (“She’d look good in anything,” muttered the woman beside me.)

The director is Mary Zimmerman, who like so many tyros brought in by the Gelb regime, has never staged an opera before. Her theater skills are evident, but also her unfamiliarity with the form. In bel canto opera, singing is the primary focus — everything else seems secondary because it is secondary. Beautiful music is where the drama occurs, and such acting as may occur should support that. It’s very exciting when singers can act, as nowadays most of them can, and Dessay is famous for it — but it’s not primary. That is the message someone should have explained to Zimmerman when she grew impatient — as, alas, she did — with moments, minutes, of mere music.

It will puzzle anyone who knows Lucia why any director would upstage the famous sextet, but that is what Zimmerman has done by introducing a new character — a fussy society photographer — who is busily placing people for a Victorian wedding photo, so that instead of a tragic crisis, we have a giggly skit. Very funny, but why is it here? Does Zimmerman think this is a comic opera? Three new corpses for Six Feet Under, perhaps?

Zimmerman obliges us to choose between paying attention to her or paying attention to the opera, which is just what I object to about new wave opera directors. She distracts us from Dessay’s lovely account of “Regnava nel silenzio” by bringing on the ghost of whom the aria tells. The ghost tiptoes down a hill, beckons, and vanishes into the well, very intriguing, but who, then, is paying attention to Dessay’s singing? Only those who know it, and force themselves to ignore the stage. Again, when Raimondo, beautifully sung by John Relyea, admonishes Lucia to accept her fate in an aria often cut, many people may not notice because a bunch of servants behind him are changing the Act II set from scene 1 to scene 2. With a camera, Zimmerman could focus our attention on Relyea; on a stage the size of the Met’s, his artistry goes almost for naught. Too, if Lucia and Arturo are seen mounting the staircase at the beginning of what will become the Mad Scene, they have less than two minutes for Lucia to go mad, find a knife, stab him 23 times, drench herself in blood, and be discovered before Raimondo rushes back to the hall with the news. Then there’s the doctor who comes on in mid Mad Scene to administer the injection that (we must infer) causes Dessay’s death and the exquisite and fanciful variations of her cabaletta — it’s amusing, but this is supposed to be a tragic melodrama, not sketch comedy. At last, in the Tomb Scene finale, when Marcello Giordani is pouring his heart out in the tenor’s big solo moment, Dessay returns, costumed in the ghost’s gray-white from Act I, and distracts us from his singing. Thinking of ways to take our minds off the singing appears to be Zimmerman’s first principle of opera direction. The singing, at least with this cast, is too good for this.

At the October 5 performance, two weeks after the premiere, the star was certainly Dessay, and it was a performance of the role not of the music alone, the vocalism never divorced from the neurotic girl giving way under emotional pressure. Her faints and mad, inappropriate giggles were credible, as was the shock of the guests (and ourselves, familiar with the piece as we might be) at the sight of this birdlike creature’s indecorous behavior. Dessay’s is a Lucia for the present day, when coloratura shenanigans are expected to defer to character. The contrast of her freakish acting with the formality of Donizetti’s melodies and ornaments created an uneasy disjuncture; this is simply not a naturalistic part. But edge can be good in the theater; in time it can become custom: There were charges of tastelessness when Sutherland, fifty years ago, became the first Lucia to have blood on her dress at all. (“She stabbed him over and over!” she pointed out at the time.) Psychologist Brigid Brophy noted that to see a virgin bride stained with blood was not unusual — to see her in her husband’s blood gave the story a jolt. Lucia has always submitted to one strong-willed man or another. Going murderously mad is her way of fighting back. None of the men expect this, and with so petite and (in Act II) pallid a Lucia, it is especially unsettling.

Dessay makes the opera her own by forceful acting, and sings her arias beautifully, but her tiny voice does not command it — she can be overpowered whenever any other voice sings, obliging her to hold her high notes until she can be sure she’s got a clear place to insert them. (Someone should advise the Alisa, Michaela Martens, that it is not good form to drown out the diva at an act finale.) Her ornaments are prettily executed, often given dramatic point by gesture or attitude, but their function of illustrating the character’s state of mind has been usurped by those gestures or, worse, by ghosts, doctors and other distractions. She may be more thrilling to see than to hear.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani sang with a liquid tenor thriving on the duet with Dessay and, best of all, his morbid double-aria in the final scene. More passionate outbursts — the famous “Maledizione” of Act II — seemed to push him towards shrillness rather than intensity, and his “Come on, fight me” gestures to the furious wedding guests were awfully Italian in so rigidly Scottish a production. As Enrico, Mariusz Kwiecien’s best act was the second, the suave, menacing duet that breaks his sister’s will — he was close to cracking during what should be the cold fury of the opening scene and withdrew due to illness before Act III’s Wolf’s Crag scene, replaced by a capable debutante Stephen Gaertner. John Relyea, as Raimondo, turned in the best-judged performance for the style of the music and the even flow of line. Young Stephen Costello, the hapless Arturo, has an exciting sound that has aroused comment, but his high notes were not without strain. It was James Levine’s night off; Jens Georg Bachmann, his replacement, kept the singers cued and the drama tight.

John Yohalem

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