Lyric Opera

Lyric Opera’s most uneven production of the year thus far is Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The Saturday night Lyric patrons seemed ready for a change from the icily formal Alceste and the tortured Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, ready to settle down to the operatic equivalent of easy listening. The heart of even the most hard-bitten Wagner partisan would have softened at the marvelous singing in this production, even if he was revolted by the set and staging.

Only a few of Donizetti’s 70 operas have not succumbed to the forces of musical Darwinism, and Lucia di Lammermoor, which premiered in 1835, is his greatest surviving serious work. Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, set to music a rather loose rendition of The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, who was perhaps most famous in the early 19th century for his romanticized stories of Scotland. Through Scott, Donizetti created a late-17th-century Scotland every bit as stylized and unreal as Bizet’s Spain in Carmen.

In Lucia di Lammermoor Lord Enrico Ashton, having nearly destroyed the Ravenswood clan, is infuriated when he discovers his sister Lucia’s secret love for Edgardo, the sole remaining Ravenswood. In Edgardo’s absence, Enrico contrives to persuade Lucia that Edgardo has abandoned her for another, and arranges her marriage to Lord Bucklaw. After the fateful wedding papers are signed, Edgardo appears and accuses Lucia of betrayal. On her wedding night Lucia comes unhinged, murders her new husband, and then dies herself, evidently of an overheated imagination. This action gives us the celebrated mad scene, favored by coloratura sopranos and their partisans for more than a century. On learning of her death, Edgardo commits suicide to join her. Not very dramatically believable perhaps, but so what? Donizetti was only looking for striking vignettes and a chance for some relatively exotic costumes and scenery so that with a few broad brush strokes the background could be taken care of. Then Donizetti’s melodic gift could fill in the foreground. With this in mind, Lucia di Lammermoor can provide an exhilarating and reasonably short evening.

Musically, Lyric’s production is impeccable. June Anderson, who looks in some ways like a downsized Joan Sutherland, was able to really fly this star vehicle. All through the show one listened in vain for any mistake or sign of strain. Besides her superb musicianship, she has a wonderfully pleasing tone and an impressive stage presence. Edgardo was sung by Alfredo Kraus, who is perhaps old enough to be Anderson’s father but doesn’t look it or sound it. Kraus’s subtle tenor seems nearly unchanged today from 15 years ago–a testimonial to what a careful musician can do to maintain his voice and avoid the burnout that has so often claimed other less intelligent singers. Jonathan Summers sang a bold and ruthless Enrico. Lucia’s confessor, Raimondo, was sung by Francesco Ellero d’Artegna, who is young for a bass but already has a solid tone, which will grow richer with time. All the other principal roles were well sung, even if overshadowed by Anderson’s Lucia. The chorus sang well and moved well, choreographed in some pseudo- Scottish reels by Kenneth Von Heidecke. The costumes were unobtrusive and unobjectionable, featuring authentically drab Highland dress, and the orchestra was on its toes for conductor Donato Renzetti.

But pity poor Donizetti. How could he have imagined that directors and designers would someday wreak havoc with the relatively simple scenery and staging required for his tuneful works? All three acts of this opera are played on the same set, a group of stylized castle walls that move up and down in a coordinated manner on hydraulic lifts–rather like a set of louvers on an exhaust fan–and the entire mechanism has the ability to rotate. Thus at the opening of the first act the set is flattened (louvers down) with the castle top to the right and back. Later the set rotates toward the audience for the meeting of Lucia and Edgardo. In the second act the castle rises to vertical (louvers up). The raising and lowering and rotating continues to the end of the show. (I tried to keep count of all the changes, but I lost track after a while, since the movements had no relation to the action.)

The set design, abetted by empty-headed direction, led to some incredibly awkward sequences. In the second act Lucia and her brother have a curious exchange in which she is perched precariously on a rickety-looking stairway, singing down at him; then they exchange places, and he sings down at her. Especially noteworthy was the mad scene, during which Anderson starts high up on a platform that’s fairly far upstage, and in a series of interesting maneuvers (some performed while the walls start to angle down) manages to work her way down the set and downstage. The Saturday-night audience held its breath in admiration of her musical prowess–and with the fear one has watching a trapeze performer working without a net. But when the characters were allowed to stand upon the flat stage, the direction was entirely trite.

It’s genuinely amazing that the singers consented to be put through all of these distracting gyrations, like so many rats in a cage. One rarely sees so witless a stage realization of an opera. Ordinarily when an opera must suffer some allegedly avant-garde director’s ministrations, as in this season’s Alceste, the director takes great pains to armor his foolishness with intellectual pretense, to persuade the audience that he is thinking deep thoughts. But director Andrei Serban and designer William Dudley haven’t troubled with any such fig leaves, and that leaves their staging blithely unrelated to the business of the singers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.