by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the Metropolitan Opera presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which originally took place on February 7 and was one of their high-definition live presentations to movie theatres. It was re-run on PBS, originally scheduled for the Wednesday night Great Performances time slot, but because for whatever contemptible reasons KPBS in San Diego chooses to ghettoize cultural programming to either the wee hours or the afternoons, it wasn’t shown here until Sunday at noon, so I recorded it then and we watched it that night. I remember thinking Lucia was a pretty silly opera when I first heard it — Donizetti’s music seemed just too pretty, too nice, too well-behaved for this obsessive tale of love, revenge, murder and madness and I couldn’t help wishing that Verdi had done the story instead.
I’ve grown to appreciate this score more in recent years, largely through Maria Callas’s recordings (particularly her 1953 studio version with Tullio Serafin conducting and the 1955 Berlin Radio broadcast with von Karajan, both with Giuseppe di Stefano as her co-star), but it remains a rather tricky opera and a difficult one to pull off. The Met’s current production was created in their last season for Natalie Dessay, but on this occasion she was relegated to introducing the broadcast as host and Lucia was sung by Anna Netrebko, something of a surprise since she’s known mostly as a lyric soprano and Lucia is the coloratura role to end all coloratura roles. The plot is one of those Romantic concoctions, based on an historical potboiler called The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott (whom the New Yorker critic, reviewing the original run of this production with Dessay as Lucia, called “the Dan Brown of his time”), in which whatever semblance of story logic is involved depends utterly on the characters behaving like complete idiots.
Lucia (“Lucy” in Scott’s text before Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, “Italicized” it) is the sister of the ambitious Scottish Lord Enrico Ashton, whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. He sees a way out by marrying her off to wealthy Lord Arturo Bucklaw, but in the meantime she’s already met and fallen in love with the Ashton’s family’s most hated rival, Edgardo di Ravenswood. The Ashtons and the Ravenswoods have hated each other for centuries, ever since a Ravenswood man murdered an Ashton woman he was trying to kidnap and seduce, dumped her body in the fountain on the Ashton estate, and she supposedly has remained behind as a ghost haunting the fountain. (We learn all this in Lucia’s first aria, “Regnava nel silenzio,” and though she supposedly doesn’t go mad until later in the opera she sounds pretty crazy already.)
This doesn’t stop Lucia and Edgardo from swearing eternal love and doing a D.I.Y. wedding ceremony on the Scottish heath just before Edgardo is scheduled to leave for France, where he and some other exiles are plotting to take over the Scottish throne. While Edgardo is out of the country, Normanno, the captain of Enrico’s guards, tells him that he’s successfully intercepted all the letters Edgardo and Lucia wrote each other, and in addition he’s forged a letter to make it look as if Edgardo is involved with someone else. Raimondo, the family priest, joins in the pressure on Lucia to marry Arturo and save the Ashton family fortunes, but no sooner has she signed the contract to marry Arturo than Edgardo bursts in, crashes the party, and without stopping either to ask for or receive an explanation, immediately assumes the worst and tears his ring off Lucia’s finger.
Offstage, between Acts II and III, Lucia’s already stretched sanity finally collapses completely and she stabs Arturo as soon as he tries to have sex with her. In the rarely heard “Wolf’s Crag” scene, Edgardo and Enrico meet outside the castle and arrange for a duel, and in the next scene Lucia appears and sings the famous Mad Scene, reliving a rather twisted version of events, imagining herself married to Edgardo and insisting that soon she will be reunited with him in heaven. In the final scene — which for years was omitted because star coloraturas didn’t like the idea that the opera went on for one whole scene without them — Edgardo is waiting for Enrico to show up for their duel when he receives word that Lucia is dead, and he decides not to wait but to commit suicide on the spot.
The Met’s production moved the time of the story up from the 16th to the 19th century, but at least they kept it in Scotland — they didn’t move it to, say, Afghanistan under the warlords or something — and the costumes are relatively coherent (there aren’t the mixups of ancient, medieval and modern wardrobes with which a lot of modern-day European directors assault the audiences for their operas), though by the 19th century Scotland was firmly integrated into the United Kingdom and so the idea of Scottish exiles fleeing to France to plot a revolution against the King of Scotland is dreadfully anachronistic. There are a few other glitches in this production — of which the one that most bothered me (even more so than Edgardo sitting comfortably in an armchair at the start of the Wolf’s Crag scene) was the corporeal appearance of the ghost of the Ashton woman that was murdered centuries before by the Ravenswood man, both in “Regnava nel silenzio” and at the end in Edgardo’s tomb scene. Frankly, she’s a lot more powerful as an off-stage presence — especially when a Lucia with Callas’s power of word-spinning and dramatic inflection makes her seem like a figment of Lucia’s already slightly demented imagination that will later blossom into full-fledged insanity.
Still, this Lucia is on the whole quite effective, with Marco Armillato’s slow-paced conducting not only going easy on Netrebko’s voice (she doesn’t have to do the coloratura at the rapid-fire pace Joan Sutherland was famous for but which Netrebko probably couldn’t have handled) but adding to the darkness and moodiness of the piece. Much of it, especially early on, sounds surprisingly Germanic — maybe not so surprisingly when you remember that Donizetti’s composition teacher was a German, Simon Mayr, who had relocated to Italy — particularly the use of French horns (remember Anna Russell’s joke about how “the French horn, which is German, is called that to differentiate it from the English horn, which is French”) and tympani in the opera’s slow, moody opening.
Netrebko was in excellent vocal form and, though hardly at the level of Callas in moment-by-moment dramatics or Sutherland or Beverly Sills in sheer vocal pyrotechnics, she manages to create a convincing portrait of a woman so totally pulled and torn apart by all the powerful men in her life it’s no surprise that she goes homicidally crazy. Her frequent on-stage partner, Rolando Villazón, was supposed to be her Edgardo in this production, but he got sick and had to cancel — and his replacement was a young Russian tenor named Piotr Beczala, with an enviably strong voice and a rather pinched facial expression that actually worked fairly well for the character. Next to Netrebko, though, the evening belonged to baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Enrico, who in Mary Zimmerman’s direction isn’t just an ambitious landowner using his sister as a prop to maintain his social position but a full-fledged villain on the level of Baron Scarpia in Tosca (and indeed, judging from his performance here, Scarpia would be a good role for him if he hasn’t already sung it).
Conductor Armillato’s poky tempi worked well in the opening and helped conceal Netrebko’s lack of experience in coloratura, but they also tended to drag the proceedings and make the opera a bit dull — though I give him major points for using the original part for glass armonica which Donizetti wrote for the mad scene but which is almost always omitted because of the sheer cumbersomeness of the instrument and the relative handful of people who can actually play it well; the sound of the armonica adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the scene and really makes the score sound like someone in an insane babble instead of, as George Bernard Shaw once contemptuously dismissed it, “a test of skill with the first flute.” (The first person to restore the armonica scoring was conductor Thomas Schippers for Beverly Sills’ recording.) The Met Lucia was certainly a quite competent production of an important standard opera — though I suspect I’d have liked it better with a true coloratura like Dessay in the lead — and it was entertaining and blessed with Netrebko’s quite lovely, well-phrased vocalism.