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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Opera Review: The Blood-Spattered Bride

Natalie Dessay in Lucia di Lammermoor.
by Paul Pelkonen
Natalie Dessay on her wedding night in Lucia.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera
With her performance in the Met's scintillating new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, French soprano Natalie Dessay joined the front rank of the world's great soprano singers. The diminutive coloratura sang one of opera's most famous roles with passion and pin-point precision on Monday night. She was sweet and girlish in the opening act, yet with a hint of something under the surface that indicated the instability and madness that is Lucia's fate.

Her Act Two duet with Enrico (the burly, dark-voiced baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) was compellingly acted, not the display of wooden singing and staging that has cursed the Lammermoor story in recent years. And she dominated the Act Two sextet, evoking pity in the audience and hints of the character's forthcoming psychotic snap.

When the breakdown finally came, (in the 17-minute Mad Scene which dominates Act III) it was a superb piece of acting supported by top-notch singing. Ms. Dessay made her entrance in the blood-spattered wedding gown, knife in hand, like a little girl gone very wrong who knows she has done something bad...but cannot bring herself to face reality. As she made her way down the winding, wooden staircase, the illusion of her acting never let up even as she soared through the vocal demands of "Il dolce suono". Each moment was carefully considered, yet sung with abandon, the power of her voice being given full rein as she blazed through the scene.

A great Mad Scene is not enough to save a Lucia, but this imaginative, photography-based production is blessed with a strong cast. Veteran tenor Marcello Giordani is no stranger to Edgardo, and his able, sturdy voice made the final Tomb Scene as compelling as the Mad Scene just before it. Too often, this powerful finale is an afterthought. That was not the case here. In fact, it was in the finale that director Mary Zimmerman pulled an effective trick on the audience. leaving the viewer unsure if it was reality or hallucination playing out across the stage.

The performance of Mariusz Kwiecien, a product of the Met's Young Artists Program, was a compelling argument for the program's existence. With a strong stage presence, Mr. Kwiecien communicated Enrico's plight, with acting instead of the usual mustache-twirling villiainy. His rich, dark voice matched well with Ms. Dessay's in their big Act II duet. Bass John Relyea made much of the smaller role of Raimondo, with ringing, firm notes and a warm, fatherly stage presence straight out of a Verdi opera.

Surprisingly, this is James Levine's first run conducting Lucia at the Met. It has been worth waiting for, as he demonstrated his flawless sense of musical architecture and his expertise at gudiing singers through the treacherous waters of Donizetti's score. Nothing demonstrated this better than the Act II sextet, a difficult ensemble piece in which each character expresses a different simultaneous emotion. Under Mr. Levine's guidance, the singers moved smoothly together, creating a vocal orchestra on the stage that was filled with meaning and human emotion.

Mary Zimmerman's concise, well thought out staging is based on photographs of Scotland. Through straight, simple representations, she makes the reality of the first two acts very believable, setting the audience up for the hallucinations of the third. This final act is a wild ride under an enormous cold moon, a trip through the psychological fun house that compares with a good production of Wozzeck in its relentless exploration of human madness. If the rest of the Met's new productions this season are up to the high standards set by this Lucia, then the opera-lovers in New York are in for a wonderful year.

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