Lucia di Lammermoor
by Gaetano Donizetti
By Lori Dana
It was an evening dominated by the light of the full moon inside and outside the Civic Opera House, where one of the greatest of bel canto operas was opening in a lush new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago. What a perfect setting: hanging low on Chicago’s lakeshore, a giant “Hunter’s Moon”, and on the Lyric stage its mirror image, slowly setting on a sad story of forbidden love, betrayal and madness. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, based on an 1819 historic novel by Sir Walter Scott, reframes the theme of the doomed lovers made familiar by Romeo and Juliet. Set on the windswept moors of 18th Century Scotland, Lucia is the tale of a girl who dares to fall in love, in defiance of her brother’s plans to improve his fortune by giving her in marriage to a political ally. Not only has Lucia already given her heart but the object of her desire is Edgardo of Ravenswood, the last of his line and a sworn enemy of her entire clan.
There are many aspects of this near-perfect production to recommend it, but at its core this opera is all about the glorious music. Written at the apex of Donizetti’s career, Lucia di Lammermoor is considered among the finest operas in the bel canto style, meaning literally “beautiful song.” With gorgeous orchestral interludes, a wealth of breathtaking arias and many lovely duets, trios and the famous “Lucia sextet” of the second act, this opera is indeed wall-to-wall spectacular music. The first scene opens on an almost empty stage, better for the audience to focus on the exquisite voice of Quinn Kelsey as Lucia’s brother Enrico Ashton. This baritone sings with the agility and clarity more often associated with the tenor range, combined with an unusually rich timbre that makes him the perfect foil for the powerful sound of Russian diva Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia. Her seemingly effortless coloratura enhanced by beautiful physical acting (her arm movements are particularly poetic) make her a perfect choice for the doomed heroine. In fact, these two fine singers are just the leading edge of a roundly excellent cast. Polish tenor Piotr Beczała reprised his Edgardo, a role that won him acclaim at the Met recently. His intensity reflects that of Shagimuratova, and together they soar in the final two duets of the first act. Romanian bass Adrian Sâmpetrean as Lucia’s chaplain Raimondo, and American tenor Matthew DiBattista as Normanno round out this outstanding group. In supporting roles, Ryan Opera Center members Lindsay Metzler as Alisa and Jonathon Johnson as Arturo make an excellent showing. Johnson in particular seems ready for the next step in his musical career, giving a poised and polished vocal performance that compares quite favorably with those of his more experienced colleagues. The consistently excellent vocalists of the Lyric Opera Chorus (under the direction of Michael Black) create a whole world for these characters to inhabit, giving voice to a tight knit community of clans. And as always, the warp and weft beneath it all is the masterful playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, nimbly led in this production by Italian maestro Enrique Mazzola.
Although Lyric’s new Lucia is still a costume drama, the innovative staging devices concocted by the design team of Paul Brown (set/costume designer) and Elena Cicorella (revival production designer) give this production a clean, contemporary aesthetic. A set of four moving panels frames and re-frames the raised stage throughout the course of the opera, alternately creating shadowbox, split screen, and abstract cropping effects that enhance our understanding of the characters’ moods and relationships. At an early point in the story, the space between horizontal panels spanning the stage narrow to a slit behind Enrico Ashton’s study. In a humorous and disturbing discourse, Enrico is informed of Lucia’s treacherous romance by his kinsmen, whose heads continually pop up in the narrow space, the way gossips poke their heads into the local coffee klatch. In the second act, the panels create a split screen effect where we observe machinations inside the Ashton castle that aim to put an end to the very intimations we see simultaneously on the desolate moor. Judicious use of color in both the sets and costuming help create a feeling of depth and detail, while keeping the audience focused squarely on the action. Shades of blue and red (not coincidentally, the tartan colors of the Ashtons and Ravenswoods, respectively) dominate the palette, even down to the dappled Scottish grass heathered in shades of smoky blue, gray-green and burgundy. Designer Chris Maravich’s use of otherworldly blue lighting creates a feeling of time suspended, as Lucia moves inextricably toward her destiny. Sadly, this is where Graham Vick’s vision goes awry. The esteemed British director successfully reframes Lucia di Lammermoor as 18th Century socio-political drama, making a strong statement about the emotional toll paid by women whose lives were routinely used as cheap currency, but the scene that brings that point undeniably home to the audience is for the most part missing. At the risk of slipping into melodramma italiana, Lucia’s “mad scene” which should wrench us awake is barely a sigh of resignation. The heroine’s final aria is sung with breathtaking tenderness on a set awash with reddish moonlight, but our world would surely be shattered if Ms. Shagimuratova were allowed to release her full power behind the mad and bloody finale this piece requires. Yes, Edgardo’s final scene was heartbreaking and beautiful but what cements Lucia di Lammermoor in our minds as one of the greats is the shock and desolation we feel when we understand just how much Enrico’s political aspirations have truly cost his sister. Mr. Vick’s Lucia is a masterful reimagining, but to drive home its point, this opera needs to end with a bloody BANG, not a whimper.
3 1/2 STARS
(“Lucia di Lammermoor,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago runs through November 6 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)