Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor

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.


  1. I love this opera, I love all Donizetti as a matter of fact...My favorite recording is one from the early 1980s with Gianna Rolandi and the New York City Opera. Fabulous production, dark and atmosphere-y, sort of like a Rembrandt painting, and Rolandi's singing was sublime.

  2. Memsaab, I think a better production (such as the NYCO's) would have made a stronger case for the opera as a whole, but I'm not sure I'll ever appreciate it as much as you do. For me, Donizetti's melodies just don't flow in the ways that Mozart's, Handel's, or Richard Strauss's do, and I was bothered by the frequent gap between the mood being expressed by the words and that of the music. That said, Lucia does deliver at the big moments, particularly the mad scene and the tomb scene.

    One thing that was emphasized in this production is that Lucia is a pawn in the struggle between Enrico and Edgardo; in the marriage contract scene she is almost rendered catatonic (she is portrayed as an abuse victim, and the domineering Enrico as her (emotional) batterer). Arturo is yet another man using her for his own ends; it almost justifies her murderous rage against him (I say "almost" because in this production Arturo seemed mainly guilty of smugness, which in my view nearly deserves the death penalty, but not quite).

    Some questions remain for me, though: why doesn't Edgardo send a message to Lucia via Raimondo's envoy? How, when Enrico commands legions of armed men, is Edgardo able to burst unexpectedly into the wedding celebrations? And why doesn't Enrico accompany his sister's body to her tomb? (Small matters, I realize, given the regular suspensions of disbelief opera requires.)

    Of Donizetti's many other operas, I've only seen L'Elisir d'Amore (which didn't work for me) and two-thirds of the Tudor trilogy, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena. (I saw La Fille du Regiment so long ago I barely remember it.) I have to say that I don't find what I know of Donizetti's musical and dramaturgical world to be especially compelling. Can you say what it is about his work that you enjoy so well?

  3. Actually, I think I had mixed up Donizetti and Rossini---Rossini is the composer whose work I really love.

    I did like L'Elisir D'Amore and La Fille Du Regiment too, though. I couldn't say why, I'm not smart enough ;-)

  4. Right, Memsaab--you're not smart enough. You only fill MemsaabStory with highly articulate, closely observed analyses of Bollywood movies on a near-daily basis.

    I had always been skeptical of Rossini. Compared to Mozart, say, he seemed less profound, and he seemed to rely on a handful of tried-and-true techniques to achieve his effects. That impression may or may not be true, but I've come to realize that Rossini is brilliant at what he does.

    We recently saw a really clever production of L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) at SF Opera, and I think it turned out to be our favorite production of that season. In particular, the build-up to the end of the first act was incredibly effective, and (contrary to my expectation) hilariously funny. If the second act would have been more effective if it were trimmed by 15 minutes, that's true of a lot of comedies (the setup is often better than the payoff, and not just in the theater). It didn't hurt that the title role was sung by the winsome Vivica Genaux, who managed the Rossinian patter and coloratura brilliantly.

    If I still prefer Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) to Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), it's because I think Mozart encompasses a greater range of feeling. But we recently saw a video of a production of Rossini's first opera, written when he was 18: La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract). It had us laughing out loud, which is no small recommendation.

  5. I love Mozart too, natch!!!! but my favorite opera of all time (I think I've left you a comment about it before?) is the video made at La Scala of La Cenerentola with Frederica Von Stade (the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production) is just brilliantly staged and sung. I love the music beyond words :-)

    I am quite lowbrow in my tastes, even in opera, I admit!

  6. Here's a YouTube video from the film:

  7. I really like your writing, and have a lot of fun reading your posts- adding you to my blog roll.

  8. Memsaab, since opera is considered by lowbrows to be highbrow, and by highbrows to be at least middlebrow, is it even possible to have lowbrow taste in opera?

    Thanks for the La Cenerentola YouTube clip, which indeed sounds and looks great (even with Romanian subtitles). I'll definitely be seeking it out. Frederica von Stade is pretty much brilliant in everything she does; her Cherubino is one of the best things about the 1972 Glyndebourne Le Nozze di Figaro as well.

    Shweta, many thanks for the kind words. I'm happy to return the blogroll favor for your highly entertaining Apni East India Company.

  9. Yes, I like this whole production, even better than Bartoli's. Everything about it is just sublime :-) Let me know what you think when you see it!