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A Mad, Mad World

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
01/28/2011 -  and Jan 30, Feb 5, 9*, 11, 2011
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Beau Gibson (Normanno), Scott Hendricks (Enrico), Oren Gradus (Raimondo), Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Alisa), Dmitri Pittas (Edgardo), Nathaniel Peake (Arturo)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Antonio Fogliani (conductor)
John Doyle (director), Liz Ascroft (set & costume designer), Jane Cox (lighting designer)

A. Shagimuratova and D. Pittas (© Felix Sanchez)

While the essays in the playbill make every attempt to convince you otherwise, Lucia di Lammermoor really is a vehicle for a great soprano. As one of the main bel canto calling cards, a satisfying production should get out of the singers' way, and Houston Grand Opera's current version does just that. Sets, lighting, chorus and orchestra all subtly enhance the excellent vocal fireworks of the leads.

Scott Hendricks and Albina Shagimuratova are reteamed after last season's Rigoletto to stunning effect. Even more than in the Verdi, Shagimuratova is completely in her element in this role. She possess all the required technical attributes of the best bel canto singers: rich tone, flexibly precise coloratura, a wide and even range, and supreme control over dynamic shadings in all aspects of her singing. Her Lucia sounds effortless and, in the made scene, all the more eerie and disturbing. Immediately in "Regnava nel silenzio" the audience knows they're in for a treat. Shagimuratova begins the cavatina with creamy legato phrases that gradually assimilate a perfectly judged injection of steeliness as the aria continues. Her singing above the staff is never strained or forced, but a natural extension of her technique, always controlled and beautiful. The mad scene is all it should be, complete with final high E-flat and perfect coordination between flute and voice in their cadenza.

The male leads are all excellent. Hendricks continues his steady rise at HGO, nicely balancing Enrico's cockiness with his vulnerability. Dmitri Pittas has an absolutely enormous, thrilling voice. Perhaps he overpowers a bit: there are moments at the beginnings of both "Sulla tomba che rinserra" and "Tombe degli avi mieie" where he strikes a few phrases of repose, but it isn't long-lived. Perhaps more of this could add an extra dimension to his portrayal, but there can't be any complaints about his full-voiced singing. Cast perfectly against Shagimuratova, their duets show absolute musical and technical symbiosis. Donizetti puts Edgardo in the unenviable position of following Lucia's mad scene, and occasionally the listener can grow impatient for the opera to end. Pittas' singing, however, is so attractive and convincing that the structure of Act 3 convinces.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen sings Alisa with a pretty tone, but simply cannot match Shagimuratova's vocal power, emphasizing Alisa's inability to alter fate. Oren Gradus was a great surprise as Raimondo. His rich bass and powerful stage presence made more of the character than one normally hears and sees. He was a perfect foil for the two high-voiced leads, and balanced their flights of fancy with earnest religious convictions. Beau Gibson's Normanno is likewise well-sung and acted, although the trendy opera staging ploy of having certain characters stay on stage as overseers of all goings-on is becoming a bit played out. Nathaniel Peake's small turn as Arturo is nicely acted and sung. His portrayal is aloof and slightly effeminate, enhancing this character's social and political remove from the remainder of the cast.

The subtle staging and lighting are an excellent complement to the singing. Predominantly gray and cloudy, the sets shift gradually to reveal different perspectives. The lighting design is especially imaginative, producing some striking shadows of the lead singers and amplifying the larger-than-life spirit of the whole work.

Antonino Fogliani, in his North American debut, conducts the HGO orchestra and chorus with supreme control and a clear love of the score. The Mozartian obbligatos from harp, clarinet and flute are tastefully played, and the massed sound of the tutti forces in this production are truly thrilling. HGO has done a magnificent job with their Lucia, making it an essential event in their season.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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