Washington National Opera's 'Lucia': superb singing, shadowy staging

This production's soloists are brilliant. You just can't see them. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON, November 11, 2011 – The Washington National Opera’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s beloved Lucia di Lammermoor is both brilliant and maddening. It’s distinguished by its phenomenal soloists and a psychologically provocative, updated setting. But on opening night, both cast and crew were undermined, at least visually, by the production’s sepulchral lighting scheme. Also an issue: a chorus that tended to set its own breakneck and ignore the clear, sensible direction of WNO conductor and music director Philippe Auguin.

Based on Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish novel “The Bride of Lammermoor,” Lucia, first performed in 1835, is the melodramatic tale of a beleaguered and very pre-feminist young woman. She’s driven to madness by her amoral and avaricious brother, Enrico, who, with his macho minions, is primarily interested in murder and money, pretty much in that order. To that end, to recapitalize and re-enter the Scottish 1% crowd, he appropriates the neighboring estate and railroads his sister into marrying the wealthy Arturo.

Lucia (Sarah Coburn) and brother Enrico (Michael Chioldi).

Lucia (Sarah Coburn) and brother Enrico (Michael Chioldi) exhibit unsettling brother-sister tendencies in this scene. (All photos: Scott Suchman.)

Enter Enrico’s hapless neighbor, Edgardo, the sole survivor of Enrico’s latest predation. Guess who’s secretly fallen in love with him? Lucia, of course. When Enrico discovers this, he’s infuriated and forcefully concludes Lucia’s sham nuptials with Arturo. Lucia flips out with the most spectacular mad scene in the history of opera, and the predictable carnage begins. Who says tragic opera is boring?

WNO has chosen to employ a production originated by the English National Opera for the current Lucia, which the company last performed here in 2002. The English sets depict the depressing interior of a decaying Scottish mansion, updating the opera’s action to the early Victorian era. But director David Alden and associate director Ian Rutherford have employed monochromatic costuming and a gloomy lighting scheme to transform this interior into nothing less than an insane asylum—the perfect setting for Lucia’s pathologically dysfunctional family and retinue.

Problem is, someone forgot to turn on the lights. Granted, gloom and doom is perfectly okay for an opera like Lucia, despite this critic’s well-known aversion toward boring, Eurogray productions of nearly everything. (They have remained somehow fashionably “avant-garde” for roughly forty years and counting.) But this production’s lighting design—attributed to Zeb Lalljee and associate Jeff Bruckerhoff—skews wide of the mark, plunging the stage into tableaux of creepily atmospheric but disastrously overpowering shadows and voids that, for at least seventy-five per cent of the opera’s running time, almost entirely obscure both cast and chorus. It’s a case of dark symbolism gone wild.

Matters are made worse by the fact that—with the modest exception of Edgardo, whose sartorial splendor blooms in Scottish plaid with muted browns and greens—the remaining cast and chorus is clad in monochromatic shades of black, white, and gray. Combined with the lighting scheme, the total effect makes you wish the KenCen had asked the Pentagon to loan out a cache of surplus night-vision goggles sufficient to enable the audience to actually see the singers they’d paid to see.

Lucia and Edgardo (Saimir Pirgu).

Lucia’s relationship with lover Edgardo (Saimir Pirgu) doesn’t seem to promising in this scene, either.

‘Nuff said. Fortunately, an opera performance ultimately rises and falls on the quality of the singing. Blessed with a first-rate cast of singers, the WNO without question has a winner here from a musical standpoint.

Lucia’s vocal centerpiece, of course, is its dreadfully put-upon heroine. As Lucia, winsome soprano Sarah Coburn—already a local favorite—gives an intriguing, complex performance, portraying her character as an impressionistic girl, barely an adult and already somewhat remote from the reality of her situation even during her first innocent entrance and solo.

Ms. Coburn’s translucently-sculpted lyric soprano contributes an element of innocence to this opera’s otherwise brutal world, adding a delicately balanced poignancy to her character that other productions of Lucia tend to miss. Vocally, she’s superb, effortlessly nailing her top notes and gliding through Donizetti’s most difficult ornamentation and trills as if she’s been singing this role practically forever. Our only quibble with her performance on opening night was a rather trembly vibrato that materialized during her opening scene—something we’ve never heard from this singer before and something that vanished quickly enough.

As expected, Lucia’s “mad scene” gave Ms. Coburn ample opportunity to put her own stamp on one of opera’s most famous set pieces. At this point, her character—savagely betrayed by her brother and spurned by her uncomprehending lover—has gone completely to pieces. Awash in blood, she’s obviously terminated her forced marriage to Arturo in a most emphatic manner. Now entirely disconnected from reality, she wanders about the stage like a somnambulist, snatching snippets of her imagined present and past out of thin air, directing her vocal lines to mind-meld with Lucia’s hallucinations.

Lucia and Arturo (Corey Evan Rotz).

Lucia has been pushed over the edge in this scene and husband Arturo’s (Corey Even Rotz’) short, unhappy life has come to an end. Enrico lurks, out of focus, at the edge of the scene.

Enhancing this haunting performance was the musical master-stroke of the evening, as the orchestra added a “glass armonica”** to its accompaniment. Actually scored by Donizetti himself for the opera’s initial performances, its spooky, shimmering echoes underscore the pure madness of Lucia and her hopeless situation. It’s a shame that most performances of the opera today neglect to employ it.

In addition to Ms. Coburn, the remaining soloists turned in remarkable performances as well Thursday evening. As monk-tutor Raimondo, bass Mirco Palazzi sportrayed his character as almost entirely lacking in conscience. His diction was remarkably crisp and accurate, and his voice added gravitas to the opera’s ensembles.

Baritone Michael Cioldi portrays Enrico as a cold, twisted psychopath. Undoubtedly at David Alden’s directorial suggestion, Mr. Cioldi’s Enrico exhibits further signs of depravity early in the opera’s second half. He compulsively appropriates his sister’s childhood toys and forcibly restrains her, suggesting a history of incest and sadism among his character’s other stellar qualities. He’s quite the villain in this production, and underlines his character’s inner motivations with a menacing, almost snarling vocal delivery.

As the flawed hero, Edgardo, tenor Saimir Pirgu is, well, flawed—in a professional way, of course. Impulsive, irrational, and arguably as close to the mental edge as is Lucia, Mr. Pirgu sings Edgardo as a man who’s very close to the edge as his world rapidly collapses before him. With a surprisingly bitter tenor, he’s a vocal match for Mr. Cioldi’s coldness. Their scenes together crackle with tension.

In ensemble, these fine soloists shone most brightly in the opera’s well-known sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento?” (“What holds me back in such a moment?”). Here, Edgardo is joined by Enrico, Lucia, Raimondo, and—a bit later on—Lucia’s unlucky husband Arturo (tenor Corey Even Rotz who sang the role in WNO’s last production) and her servant Alisa (mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko). Here, each character-vocalist unites with the others in a passionate complaint. Together, they build their individual and collective guilt and misery into a sublimely moving operatic set piece. It’s a magical musical moment, and the excellence of Thursday evening’s performance is likely to be long remembered here.

Aside from our vigorous lighting complaint, glitches in this production were remarkably few. Again, the most obvious and annoying was the lengthy Act I disconnect between the chorus and the conductor—blessedly remedied for the most part by the time Act II rolled around. It’s hard to understand why this occurred over such a sustained period, save for another strange directorial choice of having the chorus mill about outside the windows of the set. This may have made it difficult to maintain even minimal eye contact with the conductor. Hopefully, WNO will remedy this problem in successive performances, leaving only the lighting as a major issue.

WNO is rotating two casts of primary soloists during this run of Lucia. If we can, we’ll try to catch the alternate cast in a performance this week and provide an update to this review.

For tickets, information on the casts, and dates and times of Lucia’s remaining performances, running through November 19, visit WNO’s site—now part of the Kennedy Center website here.

** Although the “glass armonica” for this production actually appears on stage, the performing instrument in the orchestra pit and is being played by soloist William Zeitler for these performances.

The glass armonica (sometimes “glass harmonica”) was a mechanical instrument invented by Ben Franklin. Franklin was a good amateur musician himself, and enjoyed the novelty effect of the “glass harp,” a novelty instrument created using wine goblets tuned by filling them with varying levels of water and playing the rims with moistened fingers.

Mozart and several other noted composers actually wrote music for the glass harp. But Franklin, always the tinkerer, chose to transform this somewhat random instrument into a series of tuned, concentric glass plates that turned on a mechanical device, providing more uniformity of sound and greater opportunity for virtuosity.

This device is so fascinating that we’ll be posting more on it very shortly, so watch this space.

 

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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