“Lucia di Lammermoor” is a tale of rival families, and poor Lucia is caught in the middle. Her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton, panicked that he has squandered the family holdings through his obsessive battling with the hated Ravenswood clan, wants Lucia to marry the wealthy Lord Arturo. But she has fallen for the Ravenswood heir, Edgardo, whose passion is in some ways as oppressive as her brother’s bullying. Lucia has become a fragile thing who keeps seeing a ghost of an ancestor who was killed by a jealous Ravenswood lover.
Ms. Zimmerman has done some miraculous work in the theater, including her adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” She is newer to opera, and her work here, though compelling, seems less confident. As she has said in recent interviews, “Lucia” is sometimes milked for psychological subtexts, sometimes treated as historical melodrama. A director could present Lucia’s ghostly visions as evidence of her shaky mental state or as a real part of the world Scott depicts.
Ms. Zimmerman opts to do a little of both these approaches, which could have been a recipe for disaster. Not here, for the most part. The sets deftly mix abstract and storybook imagery: in the first scene, for example, where a mossy mound of grass and brush sits atop shiny geometrical floorboards, with a background of leafless trees.
In trying to make the phantoms of the opera real, Ms. Zimmerman sometimes goes too far, as in Lucia’s first scene, when she appears at the fountain where she has met Edgardo and encountered the ghost. Ms. Dessay looked both striking and pitiable in her sensible walking dress, complete with hat and boots. But as Lucia tells her companion, Alisa, of the ghost she has seen, singing the alluring aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” we see the ghost, a haunted, pasty-faced young woman, who beckons Lucia.
Though a powerful image, it proved a distraction to Ms. Dessay’s lustrous singing. Sometimes in opera the music alone is the drama, especially when performed as vibrantly as it was here.
Ms. Zimmerman also seems to have been impatient with the dramatically static sextet in Act II, when the distraught Lucia, duped into thinking Edgardo unfaithful, marries Lord Arturo. Edgardo comes bursting into the wedding party, and everything stops as the justly famous sextet begins. Donizetti meant for the main characters to be frozen in place as they mull over their own thoughts. Nothing happens. That’s the point. The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music.
Instead Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: the wedding participants and guests are assembled by a photographer for a formal photo. Though the moment is beautifully directed, this staging device, again, overwhelmed the stirring performance.
But mostly Ms. Zimmerman has imaginative staging ideas and elicits nuanced portrayals from the cast. In Ms. Dessay’s first scene Lucia breaks into an ecstatic cabaletta to sing of her heady love for Edgardo. Racing about the stage as she sang, Ms. Dessay, in midphrase, skidded on a floorboard and fell down. Born actress that she is, she just kept singing, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “What are you going to do?,” then finished the aria in triumph. Her response was actually in character for a young woman all giddy in love.
Staging and singing worked in tandem arrestingly during Lucia’s Mad Scene. The set was almost abstract, just a bare balcony and spiral staircase against a backdrop of blue night sky and moon. The crazed Lucia, having stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night, appears on the balcony to the terrified guests. With her huge, vacant eyes, just as in those posters all over town, and her bloodied dress, Ms. Dessay moved not with halting steps but in nervous spurts. When she recalled melodic phrases from the love duets, she sang in a voice by turns tremulous, pale, throbbing and unsettlingly brilliant.
Ms. Dessay’s Edgardo was the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. His singing was not flawless. He sometimes bellowed and lacked pianissimo subtlety. Still, he has genuine Italianate style and an exciting, robust voice. Mariusz Kwiecien has emerged in recent seasons as a major baritone. This handsome and dynamic young Polish artist was a vocally impassioned Enrico, who made that sometimes flat character seem in ways as desperate as the sister he controls.
The commanding bass John Relyea brought rare dignity to the often cardboard role of Raimondo, the chaplain who advises Enrico, causing no end of trouble. An appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.
Presiding over it all was Mr. Levine, who conducted with pliant bel canto grace while keeping the overall performance taut, crisp and articulate. This familiar score has seldom sounded so virile, sweeping and multilayered.
When Mr. Levine appeared for curtain calls, Ms. Dessay bowed and touched the stage floor in tribute. She probably thinks photographs of Mr. Levine should be plastered all over New York as well. She looks better and will sell more tickets, especially when word gets out.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Opera in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti; libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel “The Bride of Lammermoor”; conductor, James Levine; production by Mary Zimmerman; sets by Daniel Ostling; costumes by Mara Blumenfeld; lighting by T. J. Gerckens. At the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, through Oct. 25. Running time: 3 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Marcello Giordani (Edgardo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Enrico), Stephen Costello (Arturo) and John Relyea (Raimondo).Continue reading the main story
Natalie Dessay and Joseph Calleja in the Metropolitan Opera production of "Lucia di Lammermoor." Photo: Ken Howard.
If one were asked to name the most irritating aspect of Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera the female ghost who turns up during Lucia’s Act 1 aria and again for Edgardo’s suicide scene would be a strong contender. In a program essay relating the real-life background of the Lucia story, Zimmerman writes that ghosts inhabit the opera’s source novel by Sir Walter Scott. Yet the ghost here looks silly at her first appearance and later, as she assists Edgardo in planting the fatal dagger in his gut, proves to be a major distraction in a scene that is potentially the most moving of the opera.
Nevertheless, at the season premiere of the Donizetti opera last night, a shortcoming of a more mundane nature also brought frustrations—the length of the intermissions. The program now contains a note advising that the second intermission will last 40 minutes, apparently because of difficulty in getting a large staircase and a pedestrian bridge in place for the Mad Scene. (Don’t ask why this very set glides with such apparent ease into the wings at the scene’s conclusion.) In fact, the break lasted slightly longer, but the really perplexing thing was that the first intermission was almost as long. Let’s hope that by now the Met has adopted a motto of “less is more” or whatever it takes to ban overly elaborate scenery that necessitates so colossal a waste of the audience’s time.
On the plus side, the evening offered an appreciable amount of good singing. Natalie Dessay was the production’s first Lucia when the production was new in 2007 and, after ceding the role in intervening years to such sopranos as Diana Damrau and Anna Netrebko, returns to reclaim it. The voice is smaller than Met audiences are accustomed to for Lucia, and, if memory serves, perhaps even in comparison with her own prior performances. Act 1 especially needed more of an assertive, take-charge manner. Yet the voice retains its iridescent beauty, and once Dessay began charting Lucia’s mental demise, her performance came into its own, with singing of delicate details and vocal colors.
Lucia’s unraveling begins with the duet for her and her brother Enrico in Act 2, which Dessay initiated with great assurance but changed gears tellingly when Lucia’s confidence is shattered after she reads forged letters purporting to show Edgardo’s faithlessness. Brother Enrico is the first of the men in Lucia’s life who successively side against her. The second is her trusted but weak tutor Raimondo, who urges her to accede in the marriage arranged by Enrico. And finally there is Edgardo himself, by rights her champion. But, feeling betrayed himself, he turns out to be the most verbally abusive of the three.
Dessay projects a vulnerability that conveys the full cumulative impact of these confrontations. She makes the Mad Scene seem like the only logical outcome and sang it touchingly, even if she sometimes strayed from pitch. She is to be commended for dispensing with the bogus traditional cadenza with flute, though what she sang included much of the same music, just without the solo wind obbligato.
The performance also included the first Met Edgardo of tenor Joseph Calleja, who won a warm reception from the audience. Tall, and ardent in voice and manner, he brought an emotional charge to Edgardo music, especially his curse of Lucia. Still, the quality of the voice will not please everyone. Though vibrant and plenty strong, it lacks ring and resonance, and sometimes its fast vibrato can intrude. But debate over these issues goes back at least as far as the days of Fernando de Lucia and will be ultimately resolved by listeners in their own way. In any case, Calleja’s Edgardo has much to recommend it.
Enrico comes off as especially villainous in this production, and Ludovic Tézier’s handsome, robust baritone filled the bill in hearty fashion. He sang only one verse of the cabaletta in the first scene but seemed to try to make up for it by holding a loud, interpolated high note at the end as long as possible. The excellent bass Kwangchul Youn brought gravity and sensitivity to Raimondo’s pronouncements. As Arturo, tenor Matthew Plenk not only sang beautifully in the celebrated episode within the opening chorus of Act 2, scene 2, but went on to show concern for Lucia’s well being.
Despite the ghost and the long scene change, Zimmerman’s production, which updates the action to sometime around 1900, has some worthy things going for it. Even the photographer, who arranges the characters during the fraught sextet, while much criticized when the production was new, reminds us that decorum often masks underlying tensions in a wedding.
Patrick Summers leads a competently paced performance. He observed a cut in the exciting music that closes the finale of Act 2, which was performed complete when the production was new. And in another regression, flute replaced the eerie sound of the glass harmonica in the Mad Scene. But this is hardly the first revival to supplant correct musical choices by sliding back to the bad old way of doing things.
Lucia di Lammermoor runs through March 19. metopera.org