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Great Scott!! Ditto Donizetti!!

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
10/03/2008 -  & October 8*, 11, 15, 18, 22, 25, 2008
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Diana Damrau (Lucia), Piotr Beczala (Edgardo), Vladimir Stoyanov (Enrico), Ildar Abdrazakov (Raimondo), Michaela Martens (Alisa), Sean Panikkar (Arturo), Ronald Naldi (Normano)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Daniel Ostling (Set Designer), Mara Blumenfeld (Costume Designer), T.J. Gerckens (Lighting Designer), Daniel Pelzig (Choreographer), Mary Zimmerman (Production)

Ah, to have been here on October 3, opening night for the very first performance of the young German soprano Diana Danrau as Lucia. Other musical appointments precluded this. If her second performance on Wednesday was anything like the first, it showed a soprano who can sing with a tone which was clear, pure and which reached those high notes with the greatest of ease. It was her performance which sent this vintage bel canto opera soaring through the Met’s chandeliers. But the opera had far far more to make it so appealing.

First, naturally, Lucia di Lammermoor itself. My guest, after reading the program, asked why, after composing 75 operas, Donizetti had composed only two or three which stood the test of time outside of Italy. I couldn’t answer for the others, but obviously Sir Walter Scott had much to do with the success of Lucia. His novels, even today, top the Gothic charts, bringing forth gloomy castles, ghosts, the usual mad people, and destruction. Yet they had far more for opera-lovers, and Lucia takes in almost modern economic problems (the Laird has to take drastic steps to prevent bankruptcy), the question of women (Lucia is tossed about by her brother, Laird Enrico, forced to marry), and age-old rivalries.

Operatically, Donizetti knew every trick in the book—but in Lucia he transcended his own genius. The sextet Chi Mi Frena not only outdoes every other sextet in opera, but its very suddenness in the wedding scene of Act II still jolts the senses. Mad Scenes are hardly strange to opera, but Lucia is longer, brings in motifs from the beginning, is such a challenge and is...yes madder!.

Other arias are outstanding, of course. But the unrelenting gloom of Lucia, a gloom assuaged by great choruses and opportunities for great singers, enables it to still live on, even to those who are not always enamored of the style.

James Levine had loved it, and it was original production, conducted this month by the lively Italian-opera specialist Marco Armiliato, which graced the stage. I had never seen this staging, but there were moments that were most enchanting. Even the opening screen—almost Japanese style with its single branch changing later with more branches—was interesting. The exterior sets, designed by Daniel Ostling, offered scenes of empty moors (not the Otello kind), cliffs and forests.

That was for Act I, which is mainly a concert piece where very little happens. Still, one feels a foretaste of gloom during Lucia’s Regnava nel silenzio, as the ghostly spirit of a drowned woman follows her around. But it was in Act II, where the action began that the Met excelled. The first scene in the deserted castle I had seen before. It was….yes, of course, this was Orson Welles’ empty fortress in Citizen Kane, with the huge chandelier on the floor, covered with dust, with shades on the windows, with tables overturned, with the Lord of Lammermoor deep in debt, ready to sell his sister.

How would this be turned into the horrible Wedding Scene? Inventively done, as maids and servants dusted off the windowsills, took cloths off the tables, raised the chandelier (which was magically lit), and the processions could begin.

This was a Lucia brought up a century to, I guess, around 1870, where the entrance of the professional photographer who snaps the ensemble at the end of the act is not out of place. And where soloists and chorus could strut their operatic stuff.

For this, Ms. Damrau was prepared, but more about her later. What was most impressive here was that the ensemble of soloists seemed so at home in this kind of opera. One wouldn’t have been surprised with an all-Italian cast, but they came from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Germany. Yet the richness of the singing was reflected by the never over-dramatic staging. Vladamir Stoyanov was the saturnine Enrico, poring over his account books, hating himself for forcing his sister to marriage, but hating her lover as well. Stoyanov had a good Bulgarian voice, which was dark, muscular, and in the opening Cruda, funesta, smania (Torments of hate and vengeance) reeked angst. Edgar, the lover, is a conventional tenor role, but Piotr Beczala was the ringing Italian tenor incarnate. In the final scene, his great aria Fra Poco a me ricovero (To Earth I Bid a Last Farewell) had all the passion necessary. He held those repeated high F sharps with ease (and evident audience adoration, for they applauded him more than they would have after a longish opera.)

Others included Ildar Abdrazakov as the Priest who tells Lucia to follow the rules, and the ill-fated Arturo played by Sean Panikkar.

They formed the background for Ms. Damrau. She can play Mozart (Queen of the Night) and Strauss (Zerbinetta in Ariadne) with ease, so even the Mad Scene was a wonder for her voice. Just looking at the notes on a score makes one swoon, but hearing her sing those endless roulades, with all the mock-charm the hallucinogenic visions and the swooping of the frightening insane killer was a daunting experience. Even better was watching her on the stage. The fake smiles, the robot-like dancing, the terror-stricken eyes, were parts for the born actress In fact, at times she seemed less the bel canto soprano than the verismo haunted maiden of a later age. This was a memorable Lucia indeed.

But the entire production had the feeling that this was classic opera, and presented with classic success. Hearing such music by itself is a treat, but hearing it sung as it should be, updated by 150 years, but never inappropriately, in luxurious settings, showed the Met as it can be, as part of an always Golden Age.

Harry Rolnick



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