Saturday, October 17, 2015
Lucia Di Lammermoor at SF Opera
The San Francisco Opera opened a new production of Donizetti's 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, based on the dark, ghost-ridden novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor. The production by Director Michael Cavanagh, Scenic Designer Erhard Rom, and Costume Designer Mattie Ullrich was an honorable attempt to modernize the Gothic tale of a young woman driven mad by her lover, brother and an arranged marriage. The 18th Century Scottish setting has been updated to the "corporate" near-future with choristers and supernumeraries variously decked out as armed stormtroopers, business executives, or fashionable ladies from The Hunger Games. A friend who appeared in the production noted, "even though it's supposed to be fifteen years in the future, it looks very 1980s." The ocean and sky projections by Rom were evocative, but kept reminding me of 1960s movies like A Summer Place or The Sandpiper. Maybe they should have gone all the way in their updating and moved the setting to 17 Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula. (Production photos by Cory Weaver.)
I have never cared for the sadistic libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, also responsible for the similarly nasty libretto for Verdi's Luisa Miller which opened the San Francisco Opera season last month. In Lucia, the romantic hero Edgardo spends most of his time feeling sorry for himself and questioning his secret fiancee's faithfulness, while the villainous brother Enrico is one of the more dislikable major characters in opera. The original novel by Scott makes more dramatic sense. For one thing, Enrico (Henry) and Lucia (Lucy) are not orphans. Their parents are Lord Ashton, who has married above his station, and his aristocratic wife who blocks the happy engagement of Henry and Lucy. Lady Ashton is not having her daughter marry any penniless family enemy.
The Wikipedia summary of the novel ends with: "While the guests are dancing, Lucy stabs Bucklaw in the bridal chamber, severely wounding him. She descends quickly into insanity and dies. Bucklaw recovers, but refuses to say what had happened. Edgar reappears at Lucy's funeral. Lucy's older brother, blaming him for her death, insists that they meet in a duel. Edgar, in despair, reluctantly agrees. But on the way to the meeting, Edgar falls into quicksand and dies." Now that's the opera I want to see. Brian Mulligan as the older brother Enrico gave the most vocally secure performance at the Sunday matinee, and it was a delight hearing that powerful baritone without the amplification from Sweeney Todd which he starred in last month.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala appeared as Tamino in a 2007 Magic Flute at the SF Opera. Though he didn't get much notice at the time, I thought it was one of the most beautiful tenor voices I have ever heard live, and it's been fun watching his career take off around the world in the intervening years. He's been singing just about every major Italian tenor role at the Met and elsewhere, so there was worry that his voice had taken a beating, but it's still beautiful, sweet, and powerful. Please bring him back in anything.
The chorus and the orchestra under Nicola Luisotti did a fine job, and the famous sextet was marvelous. The crazy wedding party dresses for the womens' chorus were a kick, though it seemed more than a little bizarre that they walk en masse into the bridal chamber after the murder rather than the usual staging of a bloody Lucia wandering among the wedding guests in a ballroom. Chong Wang, who made such a good impression as Hylas the Sailor in this summer's Les Troyens was impressive again as the ill-fated groom, and Zanda Svede as Lucia's companion Alisa looked amusingly like a Bond Girl as she glided about all afternoon.
The big hole in the center of the production was Nadine Sierra as Lucia, which was not her fault. The role requires a serious diva, or Lucia can come across as a passive ninny, unworthy of anything other than pity. Diana Damrau, who was so sensationally good at her 2009 SF Opera debut in La Fille du Regiment, was originally scheduled to sing the role but canceled at the last hour with the apology that she needed "vocal rest" for a number of months, so Nadine Sierra was hastily called in to cover. She sounded pretty and hit every note, but there was a generic dullness to the performance, and even her famous mad scene was literally upstaged by the splatter-film scenic design and the bare behind of debuting supernumerary Charlie Martinez, body double for Chong Wang.