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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Opera Review: To Insanity, and Beyond!

Lucia di Lammermoor returns to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Natalie Dessay and Joseph Calleja in the Met's revival of Lucia di Lammermoor
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
Most performances of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor center on the Mad Scene, also known as Act III, Scene 2. This 17-minute series of arias is a musical and dramatic tour de force for the soprano. In the right hands, it is a total show-stopper.

Mary Zimmerman's attractive production of Lucia moves the opera's action to the Victorian era before literally dissolving into the heroine's tortured mind. (Think Jane Austen on acid.) But its greatest strength is that it goes beyond the superficial warbling of the leading lady and explores Lucia as what it really is: a rock-ribbed, full-blooded family drama with as much excitement and stagecraft as the mature works of Giuseppe Verdi. Small wonder: Donizetti's librettist Salvatore Cammarano wrote the book for Il Trovatore.

Judging from Monday night's performance, this run of Lucia relies on its male roles to anchor the work and support the heroine's flight into insanity and high E flats. Tenor Joseph Calleja was rock-like and supportive, displaying a pleasing intonation and a touch of squillo that made Edgardo's sudden entrance into the wedding an thrilling moment instead of a tired plot device. Lucia's creepy brother Enrico was sung by the reliable baritone Ludovic Tézier, an imposing presence in his duet with Ms. Dessay. And Arturo, the thankless role of the groom who gets shanked by the diva, was a small showcase for promising young tenor Matthew Plenk.

The best part of the entire evening was the Act II sextet, which featured these three fine singers, Ms. Dessay, bass Kwangchal Youn as Raimondo and Theodora Hanslowe in the supporting mezzo role of Alisa. This famous ensemble had an odd congeniality, as if the cast of La bohème had left the streets of Paris and decided to put on another opera entirely. (That's not a bad thing.) The singing was taut and exciting, propelled by the baton of Patrick Summers in the pit.

Natalie Dessay's return to the title role was an occasion for celebration at Monday night's performance, as the bel canto belle embodies the opera's neurotic, titular heroine. Ms. Dessay threw herself completely into the part, whether exchanging tender words with Edgardo (Joseph Calleja), feuding with Enrico or offing Arturo on their wedidng night, the deed which triggers the celebrated Mad Scene.

In the Mad Scene, Ms. Dessay eschewed her Gloria Swanson moment, descending rapidly without stopping on the enormous Zeffirelli-style curved staircase. "Il dolce sono" started almost as a whisper, as she struggled for the last feeble wisps of sanity before plunging into the meat of the aria. Once there, she opened out her instrument, driving the notes upward when necessary, floating them alongside the twittering flute line. In the faster second section, Ms. Dessay floated the notes with expert control, opting to use her gossamer coloratura to maximum effect.

One of the virtues of this Lucia is the decision to open out the "standard" cuts that reduce the last act to Raimondo's narrative and the Mad Scene proper. The Wolf's Crag confrontation between Edgardo and Enrico was an exciting tenor-baritone duet, sung with energy and tension by Mr. Calleja and Mr. Tézier. The finale of the opera, dominated by Mr. Calleja's cavatina, cabaletta and ultimate suicide is made all the more poignant by Ms. Dessay's appearance. As Edgardo stabs himself, Lucia (now dead)  apparates one last time to give mute comfort, laying the son of the Ravenswoods in his grave and kissing him as the curtain falls. Although this was not in the libretto, the addition serves as a gothic conclusion to this innovative production.

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