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Alden's 'Lucia': You'd Be Crazy Not to Love It

Sarah Coburn (Lucia) and Michael Chioldi (Enrico) in Lucia di Lammermoor, Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Washington National Opera's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was one of my top picks for the opera season, and the opening night performance proved me right. Sometimes provocative director David Alden, whose 2007 staging of Jenůfa was one of the best on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage in the last decade, has again modernized a 19th-century story to create a disturbing, Strindbergian drama (created for English National Opera) -- unsettling enough to earn a round of boos from the normally half-asleep Kennedy Center crowd. My full report, including thoughts on both casts, will run at on Monday, but for now, suffice it to say that anyone who enjoys good singing and good theater will want to experience this production.

Sextet, Act II -- Mirco Palazzi (Raimondo, left), Sarah Coburn (Lucia), Michael Chioldi (Enrico, right), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Normanno, background), Sara Mesko (Alisa, background) -- in Lucia di Lammermoor, Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
In the A cast, American soprano Sarah Coburn is perhaps not a great Lucia, but she is a very good one. The fioriture were well-defined; there were soaring, if a little pale, high notes; and she is a talented actress. The other side of bel canto singing, a long spinning legato line, is not quite there for Coburn because of a nervous flutter in the vibrato that sounds a little neurotic (perhaps not such a bad thing here), and she was missing that last bit of vocal oomph to vault her over the large ensemble numbers. Instead, the discovery of this cast was the company debut of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who sounded in much better form than he did in Santa Fe Opera's La Traviata. His intonation was still not quite perfect but much better, and he had a sweet but still robust tone, with a little dustiness at the top here and there. In Aragorn-style long-haired wig and kilt, he cut a dashing figure as Edgardo, and he sang an outstanding tomb scene in Act III.

Baritone Michael Chioldi sounded much more promising as Enrico, Lucia's brother, than he has in previous appearances with Washington National Opera, in last year's Madama Butterfly and 2010's Hamlet. The top had a pleasing, forceful snarl, although there were still some rather odd vowel formations. He was outshone by another company debut, Italian bass Mirco Palazzi as Raimondo, the slimy family chaplain. Tenor Corey Evan Rotz, thanked again by the company for saving their bacon by stepping in as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos two years ago, had a hilarious turn as Arturo, whom Enrico chooses to marry his sister, costumed here as sort of Oscar Wilde-style dandy, a vain fop one is quite glad to see murdered. The supporting roles were filled ably by apprentice singers.

available at Amazon
W. Ashbrook, Donizetti and His Operas

available at Amazon
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, J. Sutherland, L. Pavarotti, Royal Opera House, R. Bonynge
Musically, the evening was so strong because of the capable hands of the company's music director, Philippe Auguin, in the pit, showing yet again that when he is at the podium, it will be worth hearing. The orchestra sounded in excellent form, in sync with one another and their leader, and playing with confidence, from the Scotland-evoking horns, to the extended harp solo in Act I, and certainly the otherworldly sound of the glass armonica, played by special guest artist William Zeitler, a heart-breaking evocation of Lucia's hallucinations, sadly removed from the score by Donizetti in a later version. Auguin managed to rein in the chorus's tendency to rush, a repeated problem last night, and with clear gestures kept the orchestra on the same page even as he navigated the many twists and turns of tempo adjustment necessary in this score, to give the soloists the rhythmic space they need.

The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano is adapted from the arch-Romantic Walter Scott novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, and David Alden's staging updates the period to the stifling repression of the Victorian era. The sets (Charles Edwards), costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel), and lighting (Adam Silverman) are starved of all color, creating a twilight world that evokes both the run-down estate of Ravenswood and the dingy ward of a mental asylum. Lucia's overly dramatic nature and tendency toward elaborate fantasy is played out on a small stage, a Victorian home theater nowhere near as elaborate as the one built by John Langdon Down in his home/hospital in Middlesex. Alden meant to evoke the treatment innovated by Down, having his patients perform music and drama on stage -- the chorus serves as a silently applauding audience in the mad scene -- but it works just as well as a way to understand Lucia as a self-centered and delusional Romantic, the sort of person who might commit suicide because a favorite character in a novel had done so.

Something is not right in the Ashton family, although Cammarano and Donizetti do not make it explicit beyond Enrico's desperate need to form a new alliance with Arturo and save his name. The family has cheated Edgardo out of his estate, and Enrico acts forcefully to keep Edgardo away from his sister. But why? Alden's interpretation -- not found in the libretto, it's true, but not incompatible with it -- centers on the perverse possessiveness of Enrico, an incestuous undertone that rumbles through the opera, as he ties Lucia to her bed and plays obsessively with her dolls, while Lucia herself is infantilized like a doll in a young girl's clothing. It may not be to traditionalists' tastes, but it made the brother-sister scenes much more compelling. The stifling influence of family is felt in the presence of framed photographs of dour ancestors, held up by various characters and frowning from the walls.

The B cast of Lucia debuts tomorrow night, with Lyubov Petrova in the title role, last heard in the role at Central City Opera in 2009.

Philip Kennicott, Washington National Opera’s rough ‘Lucia’ needs polishing (Washington Post, November 12)

Micaele Sparacino, Until Death Do Us Unite (ConcertoNet, November 11)


Anonymous said...

Did Anne Midgette sneak out of maternity leave to write this review?

Robert Valente said...

Thanks great review - I was also at opening night and loved the cast, production, costumes, and lighting. I was a little surprised to hear David Alden booed by some, but everyone has their own opinion - I loved the world he created on stage, even if it wasn't quite traditional. I am higher on Miss Coburn, I thought she held up a fine cast, and I agree the Albanian tenor was the pleasant surprise of the evening.
This production is well worth seeing - best I've seen on the KC stage since last year's Hamlet.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the singers very much.
The orchestra sounded great under Phillipe Augin's direction.
I absolutely loathed the production and the director's conception.
It is one of the most absurd and ridiculous idea that I have ever seen.
It almost top the awful production that Francesca Zambello did for the Met some years ago.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Robert Valente -but am far higher on the Enrico of Michael Chioldi. It's not an easy role to portray - and his interpretation was exceptional.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting review here:

Lucia MTG Review