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Opera in the Olde West: 'Lucia'

Photo courtesy of Central City Opera
Central City, a quirky little Colorado town of narrow, steep streets perched on a ridge, made it rich in the Gold Rush. With their new-found wealth, Welsh and Cornish miners wanted their town to have all the luxuries, including an opera house, which they built with the help of the town's residents in 1878. When the gold went bust the town and its opera house fell into disrepair. The opera house was restored in 1932, as the site of an annual summer opera festival, and it remains home to the fifth oldest American opera company still in existence. Unfortunately, the town more recently also had the dubious honor of being one of the mountain locations where gambling was legalized in Colorado, in the early 1990s, and the drive up to the historic part of town takes you through an ever-growing number of casinos.

It is a strange truth that, in Monaco, a casino bespeaks elegant luxury, while in America a casino is most often merely seedy. Even so, gambling is gaining ground in Colorado, and it seems to have sapped most of the charm left in Central City as a cultural destination. This is too bad considering the long history of the Central City Opera festival and its many traditions, from being officially opened by a blast of dynamite to the honoring of fifteen local Flower Girls, who distribute flowers to audience members. Many great singers have passed over its stage, and it continues to mount worthy productions with a combination of better-known stars and apprentice singers. The theater is an intimate space, with many of the same appealing qualities as Baltimore's Lyric Theater, including San Francisco artist John C. Massman's elaborate trompe-l'oeil murals of classical statuary casting false shadows.

Lyubov Petrova in the mad scene, Lucia di Lammermoor, Central City Opera (photo by Mark Kiryluk)
Perhaps that Thursday's performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was so close to the end of the festival limited the size of the audience, which filled only about half of the floor seating. Lucia is apparently produced often now among American companies, but this is the first time it has come under official review at Ionarts. Apart from the mad scene and the famous sextet, as well as some pretty melodies, it is a dramatically flimsy work, with an often ludicrous libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, adapted from the arch-Romantic Walter Scott novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. It can work to astounding effect, given a certain willingness to overlook its shortcomings, with a vocally potent and dramatically credible Lucia, which the Central City production definitely has in Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova.

Petrova has many things in her favor for a role like this, including spot-on intonation, accuracy in the fioritura passages, an exquisite subito pianissimo. There is a sharpened edge to the high notes, which were played here along with most of the other vocal pyrotechnics with a certain sense of orgasmic outburst. The only thing that keeps Petrova from achieving a great bel canto performance is a fluttery timorousness, an irritant in the delivery of smooth line, as in Soffriva nel pianto, for example. Those reservations were mostly forgotten by the time we got to the mad scene, acted with visceral energy by Petrova and sung with impressive elan, matched beautifully by the flute (in the later version, where Donizetti replaced the ingenious use of glass harmonica in the mad scene with two flutes).

Other Articles:

Kyle MacMillan, Mad about her: Central City's spellbinding "Lucia" (Denver Post, June 30)

---, Russian soprano finds depth in madness of "Lucia" (Denver Post, June 21)

T. D. Mobley-Martinez, Quality evident in Central City's 'Lucia' (Colorado Springs Gazette, July 8)

Bob and Anne Hunter, “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Gaetano Donizetti (Gilpin County News, July 9)

Wes Blomster, CCO stages luminous 'Lucia' (Daily Camera, June 29)
Petrova had a worthy counterpart in the snarling, if somewhat woofy baritone of Grant Youngblood's Enrico. Tenor Vale Rideout had a slightly off night as Edgardo, a heroic voice having become a little ragged and worn since his performance with Lorin Maazel two years ago, with the high notes almost out of control and even some cracking here and there, a dramatically impetuous Edgardo with an unfortunately shouty tone. As Raimondo baritone Richard Bernstein had an indisputably resonant strength, without the sure awareness of how best to use it, a performance that could have used greater dynamic contrasts. Apprentice artists took the other supporting roles, with only James Barbato's Normanno meriting particular mention.

Conductor John Baril showed a clean hand in the pit, allowing the singers room in his beat to stretch and mollify the tempo with rubato. He presided over mostly assured performances from his orchestra, particularly from the horns, who from those first exposed moments in the introduction provided the most direct sound of old Scotland, and from the harp so crucial to Regnava nel silencio. Again, the end of the run blues were in evidence, as we could see one of the percussion players, idle during the mad scene, reading a magazine and texting on his phone. The chorus of young singers produced a big, beautiful sound, demonstrating that they had been well rehearsed by chorus master Christopher Zemliauskas and staying right with Baril's beat.

The production, directed by retiring soprano Catherine Malfitano, had much in common with the Rigoletto we saw her stage in Washington last year. It was fairly traditional, although it updated the action from the 17th century to the time of the opera's premiere, 1835, with fairly uninteresting results. At first, the costumes designed by Terese Wadden made me think that the setting had been changed to the American West in the Gold Rush years, which would actually be a good setting for the violent conflict of the Scott story, with Enrico and Edgardo swearing to pistols at sunset. Rather cloddish set pieces (designed by Wilson Chin) appeared and disappeared behind a scrim showing the map of Scotland, tartans were thrown in here and there, and spotlights underscored the reflective moment of the sextet (lighting by David Martin Jacques). Malfitano's strength is the acting direction, and once again the singers all seemed to know why their characters were doing what they were doing. The direction, as much as Petrova's talent, gave much of the dramatic force to the mad scene.

There is one remaining performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Central City Opera, on August 2 at 2:30 pm.

1 comment:

Bryan Taylor said...

Dr. D,
WOW!!! What a great review! So interesting about the percussionist. Did you see my old friend playing viola? I hope he wasn't texting!!!!
Enjoy the rest of your time in CO and NM and I will see you at St. Anselm's very soon!
-Mr. T