The Metís New Lucia

The reasons are clear: Donizetti and his librettist, Cammarano, were
stage-wise pros and their work, boiled down from a verbose Walter Scott
novel, is a tight dramatic ship as well as tunefully irresistible. The sextet
has been called the most famous ensemble in opera, but it does not come from
nowhere ó it bursts logically from a nervous situation, and the scene that
follows propels the excitement to a teetering high. Coloraturas prove
themselves on the Fountain Scene and the Mad Scene, but the latter, too, is
the logical result of all that has gone before. The Tomb Scene that follows
may be anticlimactic, but its beauty has lured many a great tenor to attempt
to steal the show.

The Met has always loved Lucia; every notable Lucia of the last
124 years has sung it there. This seasonís new production is the fourth to
play the New Met; its look is handsome and conservative to suit the taste of
the American opera audience. The era has been warped to the late nineteenth
century for no obvious reason, though it does permit Natalie Dessay to wear a
tight Empress Sisi riding habit in Act I and glamorous red silk in Act II. (I
thought the Ashtons were strapped for money?) In the Metís previous
Lucia, properly set two hundred years earlier, zaftig Ruth Ann
Swenson was unattractively got up as one of Charles IIís bare-breasted
floozies, but Dessay is the raison díÍtre of the show ó her
maddened face is all over New York, on every news and subway kiosk ó and
she presumably had more influence with the costume shop. (ìSheíd look
good in anything,î muttered the woman beside me.)

The director is Mary Zimmerman, who like so many tyros brought in by the
Gelb regime, has never staged an opera before. Her theater skills are
evident, but also her unfamiliarity with the form. In bel canto opera,
singing is the primary focus ó everything else seems secondary because it
is secondary. Beautiful music is where the drama occurs, and such acting as
may occur should support that. Itís very exciting when singers can act, as
nowadays most of them can, and Dessay is famous for it ó but itís not
primary. That is the message someone should have explained to Zimmerman when
she grew impatient ó as, alas, she did ó with moments, minutes, of mere

It will puzzle anyone who knows Lucia why any director would
upstage the famous sextet, but that is what Zimmerman has done by introducing
a new character ó a fussy society photographer ó who is busily placing
people for a Victorian wedding photo, so that instead of a tragic crisis, we
have a giggly skit. Very funny, but why is it here? Does Zimmerman think this
is a comic opera? Three new corpses for Six Feet Under, perhaps?

Zimmerman obliges us to choose between paying attention to her or paying
attention to the opera, which is just what I object to about new wave opera
directors. She distracts us from Dessayís lovely account of ìRegnava nel
silenzioî by bringing on the ghost of whom the aria tells. The ghost
tiptoes down a hill, beckons, and vanishes into the well, very intriguing,
but who, then, is paying attention to Dessayís singing? Only those who know
it, and force themselves to ignore the stage. Again, when Raimondo,
beautifully sung by John Relyea, admonishes Lucia to accept her fate in an
aria often cut, many people may not notice because a bunch of servants behind
him are changing the Act II set from scene 1 to scene 2. With a camera,
Zimmerman could focus our attention on Relyea; on a stage the size of the
Metís, his artistry goes almost for naught. Too, if Lucia and Arturo are
seen mounting the staircase at the beginning of what will become the Mad
Scene, they have less than two minutes for Lucia to go mad, find a knife,
stab him 23 times, drench herself in blood, and be discovered before Raimondo
rushes back to the hall with the news. Then thereís the doctor who comes on
in mid Mad Scene to administer the injection that (we must infer) causes
Dessayís death and the exquisite and fanciful variations of her
cabaletta ó itís amusing, but this is supposed to be a tragic melodrama,
not sketch comedy. At last, in the Tomb Scene finale, when Marcello Giordani
is pouring his heart out in the tenorís big solo moment, Dessay returns,
costumed in the ghostís gray-white from Act I, and distracts us from his
singing. Thinking of ways to take our minds off the singing appears to be
Zimmermanís first principle of opera direction. The singing, at least with
this cast, is too good for this.

At the October 5 performance, two weeks after the premiere, the star was
certainly Dessay, and it was a performance of the role not of the music
alone, the vocalism never divorced from the neurotic girl giving way under
emotional pressure. Her faints and mad, inappropriate giggles were credible,
as was the shock of the guests (and ourselves, familiar with the piece as we
might be) at the sight of this birdlike creatureís indecorous behavior.
Dessayís is a Lucia for the present day, when coloratura shenanigans are
expected to defer to character. The contrast of her freakish acting with the
formality of Donizettiís melodies and ornaments created an uneasy
disjuncture; this is simply not a naturalistic part. But edge can be good in
the theater; in time it can become custom: There were charges of
tastelessness when Sutherland, fifty years ago, became the first Lucia to
have blood on her dress at all. (ìShe stabbed him over and over!î she
pointed out at the time.) Psychologist Brigid Brophy noted that to see a
virgin bride stained with blood was not unusual ó to see her in her
husbandís blood gave the story a jolt. Lucia has always submitted
to one strong-willed man or another. Going murderously mad is her way of
fighting back. None of the men expect this, and with so petite and (in Act
II) pallid a Lucia, it is especially unsettling.

Dessay makes the opera her own by forceful acting, and sings her arias
beautifully, but her tiny voice does not command it ó she can be
overpowered whenever any other voice sings, obliging her to hold her high
notes until she can be sure sheís got a clear place to insert them.
(Someone should advise the Alisa, Michaela Martens, that it is not good form
to drown out the diva at an act finale.) Her ornaments are prettily executed,
often given dramatic point by gesture or attitude, but their function of
illustrating the characterís state of mind has been usurped by those
gestures or, worse, by ghosts, doctors and other distractions. She may be
more thrilling to see than to hear.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani sang with a liquid tenor thriving on the
duet with Dessay and, best of all, his morbid double-aria in the final scene.
More passionate outbursts ó the famous ìMaledizioneî of Act II ó
seemed to push him towards shrillness rather than intensity, and his ìCome
on, fight meî gestures to the furious wedding guests were awfully Italian
in so rigidly Scottish a production. As Enrico, Mariusz Kwiecienís best act
was the second, the suave, menacing duet that breaks his sisterís will ó
he was close to cracking during what should be the cold fury of the opening
scene and withdrew due to illness before Act IIIís Wolfís Crag scene,
replaced by a capable debutante Stephen Gaertner. John Relyea, as Raimondo,
turned in the best-judged performance for the style of the music and the even
flow of line. Young Stephen Costello, the hapless Arturo, has an exciting
sound that has aroused comment, but his high notes were not without strain.
It was James Levineís night off; Jens Georg Bachmann, his replacement, kept
the singers cued and the drama tight.

John Yohalem

image_description=Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor (Rafal Olbinski)
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor
product_by=The Metropolitan Opera, 5 October 2007
product_id=Above: Lucia di Lammermoor by Rafal Olbinski