At many points during San Francisco Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (seen July 2), it was hard to escape the impression that the singing was better than the music.
Lucia is based on Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor (despite the Scottish setting, the characters' forenames have been Italianized). Lucia is forced to renounce her true love, Edgardo, and marry Arturo, a man she has barely met, to save the fortunes of her brother Enrico. Madness and death follow.
Soprano Natalie Dessay (photo by Terrence McCarthy) deserves every superlative that's been showered on her Lucia. While she possesses the effortless-sounding coloratura demanded by this difficult role, she is also a skilled actress who fully inhabits her character. The famous mad scene in the middle of the third act, where a dazed Lucia wanders into her wedding party drenched in Arturo's blood and hallucinating that she is marrying Edgardo, was brilliantly performed (and I don't even like coloratura).
As her lover Edgardo, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti's voice sounded somewhat dry and strained in Act I, but gradually opened up over the course of the evening. He gave an emotionally compelling account of the final scene, where Edgardo at Lucia's tomb realizes the full horror of what's transpired and resolves to die with her. Baritone Gabriele Viviani sang Enrico with a convincing sense of menace and heedlessness of his sister's desires. As the sympathetic chaplain Raimondo, bass Oren Gradus possessed the most commanding male voice (and the most nuanced male character) onstage. Andrew Bidlack essayed the thankless role of Arturo with a high tenor voice that was perhaps on the light side (am I the only person who feels some sympathy for the luckless Arturo, slaughtered on his wedding night?).
But for me, these excellent voices were too often employed in the service of music that was incongruously mismatched with the dramatic situation. This was especially apparent in the second-act sextet (mainly a trio) that follows Lucia's signing of the marriage contract with Arturo. An armed Edgardo bursts in (never mind how) and expresses defiant rage, while Enrico feels the stirrings of remorse, and Lucia is utterly devastated. But Donizetti's melodies for this scene bear little relation to the content of the words; you could substitute entirely different texts about the beautiful spring breezes, and the trio would work perfectly well. This incongruity can be used once or twice as a deliberate effect; when it happens throughout the opera, you can't avoid the suspicion that it's not a device, but a failing.
San Francisco Opera did use a recent critical edition of the score, which apparently involved somewhat more transparent orchestration and the use, as Donizetti originally intended, of an eerie-sounding glass harmonica during Lucia's mad scene (you can approximate the effect by rubbing a wetted finger around the rim of a wine glass). Alas, the care taken with the score was not extended to the sets, which used painted panels to try to generate a sense of oppressiveness and enclosure, but mainly just looked cheap. From the first scene, the panels also forced the performers into awkward accommodations, as when the chorus representing Enrico's clansmen has to duck under an all-too-solid panel representing the mist on the moors.
Fortunately the production did not detract from Dessay's amazing performance. Here's a short excerpt of her mad scene from the Metropolitan Opera's Lucia from last fall. The production is entirely different from San Francisco's, but it will give a small hint of what it's like to experience her performance in the theater:
For another, more eloquent appreciation of Natalie Dessay's Lucia, see Prima la musica, poi le parole.