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Until Death Do Us Unite

Kenndy Center Opera House
11/10/2011 -  & November 12, 13m, 14, 16, 18, 19, 2011
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Jeffrey Gwaltney (Normanno), Michael Chioldi (Enrico), Mirco Palazzi (Raimondo), Sarah Coburn (Lucia), Sarah Mesko (Alisa), Saimir Pirgu (Edgardo), Cory Evan Rotz (Arturo)
Washington Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
David Alden (Stage Director), Charles Edwards (Set Design), Brigitte Reiffenstud (Costume Design), Adam Silverman (Original Lighting Design),

S. Coburn, M. Cioldi (© Scott Suchman/WNO)

The Washington National Opera continues their winter season with a highly original and dramatically probing production of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor. It features superb singers in all of the roles, a stellar voiced Lucia, a wonderful chorus, and a superb conductor, who weaves a musically sensitive and stylistically telling performance. And any singer will tell you, the drama inherent in the score emanates from the pit under the control of the maestro. Once the curtain goes up he runs the show and Maestro Auguin had a great deal to say about this score.

Lucia di Lammermoor is based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor on which several operas are based. Donizetti’s version, set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, premiered at the Teatro San Carlo in Napoli in 1835. It was an immediate success and has never left the repertory. It is beloved by the public, by singers the world over, and is even a favorite of most critics. Count me in. It is done year in – year out on all the great stages of the opera world. Coloratura sopranos have ruled this opera. All of the great leggiero sopranos of the 20th and 21st centuries have recorded it, including Luisa Tetrazzini, Amelita Galli Curci, Lily Pons, Roberta Peters, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, and so on. The Donizetti style lends itself to great artists leaving their individual stamp on the score, and the current production of the WNO has artistry written all over it.

Director David Alden has turned the opera on its head. He pays no attention to tradition, and he forces you to rethink every aspect of the opera. If you think you’ve seen Lucia one too many times, this production will dust the mold off your crusty old score.

The undeniable star of the show is the truly remarkable Sarah Coburn. Her technique is virtually flawless (at least she makes you think it is) and her voice is pure spun gold. She does not have that thin, flute-like tone that most coloraturas have. It is rich and full. She recalled to me the heyday of Lina Pagliughi, with that plump, Italianate timbre. Maestro Auguin worked from the critical edition and made very few cuts. He employed the glass harmonica in the Mad Scene, which gave Ms. Coburn the opportunity to do wonderfully imaginative touches. Most notable was the cadenza of the Mad Scene, in which the eerie sounding glass harmonica replaced the traditional flute. Whoever wrote her cadenza did something really brilliant. It was completely outside the 19th century bel canto style of music. It was like a young Arnold Schoenberg had composed it. It was lush and explored new possibilities in the tonality as she searched for that final Bb. To say the very least, her performance of the Mad Scene completely brought down the house.

She was partnered by the rousing and passionate tenor of Saimir Pirgu. This was his WNO debut, having already debuted at La Scala di Milano, Opéra national de Paris, the MET, and so on. He dominated the stage whenever he sang. The first act duet “Verrano a te” was melting in its lyricism. Lucia has the most famous and popular ensemble in all of Italian opera, the great sextet, “Chi me frena in tal momento” (What restrains me in such a moment). All six principals go at it with one singing louder than the other. Tenor Pirgu did a remarkable job of holding his own, the squillo in his voice easily trumpeted the high tessitura above the other six. Edgardo’s death scene is one of the most vocally demanding of any tenor aria. Mr. Pirgu was unwavering in his dramatic and full voiced delivery…a real testament to his artistry.

Baritone Michael Chioldi was also a vocal delight. His solid and ringing top notes must make him the envy of many of his colleagues.
The two high G’s he sang in his first aria “Cruda funesta smania” were quite thrilling. Mr. Alden did a remarkable job of not tampering with the singing. He let the artists go at it, often downstage, as this aria was staged, which lets the music speak for itself and allows the singers great freedom. Mr. Chioldi’s duet with Lucia was one of the high points of the performance. Enrico and Lucia pulling forth all of the emotion and drama in the music.

The role of Raimondo Bide-the-bent can often be a thankless role. This production restored his duet with Lucia. The music of the duet is memorable and the scene builds the pressure on Lucia to enter into the tragic marriage that pushes her over the line of sanity. Mr. Mirco Palazzi’s voice is dark and creamy, like a warm cup of hot chocolate. He was particularly effective in his great scene that precedes the Mad Scene when announces to the wedding guests that Lucia has murdered Arturo. It drew a large round of applause, which was well deserved.

Cory Evan Rotz, a favorite member of the company, gave a stalwart performance as Lucia’s unfortunate husband Arturo. Sarah Mesko has a very lovely voice. As Alisa she was a most sympathetic companion to Lucia, and she has a noble bearing. On stage Jeffrey Gwaltney also made a strong impression as Normanno. He has a nice soaring quality to his voice that is very effective in the opening scene as the male chorus was right on top of him going full throttle. He had no problem in singing right above them.

The chorus which plays such a large role in this opera was very well prepared by Steven Gathman. It was especially thrilling when their voices were added into the sextet. The WNO chorus always sings with detail and attention that the music calls for. A tribute to their ensemble and to the training of Maestro Gathman.

Once again I will tell you that this is a most unusual production. The singers headed by the dazzling Lucia of Sarah Coburn, all have the virtuosity which Donizetti demands. The performance is led with authority and detail by Maestro Auguin, and David Alden’s provocative and penetrating staging will undoubtedly shake you up. If you are in DC, you won’t want to miss this one. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but most will find it distinctly entertaining.

Micaele Sparacino



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