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Ken Howard

Lucia di Lammermoor Review

Opera's about the singin'

July 10, 2017, 4:00 pm
Forget about kilts and plaids. Dismiss tartans and those shaggy elkhounds that parade around the stage in most operas based on Walter Scott’s novels. The Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor waves away all such ho-hum accessories to Highland tragedy. Instead, the company provides a sober, spare and noble account of a score too often buried in mists-and-bagpipes cliché.

To be direct: You won’t be finding an account of Lucia anywhere that surpasses—vocally, dramatically, truthfully—SFO’s brilliant staging of this masterpiece of Romantic opera. Of the many dozens of productions I’ve witnessed here over the past 61 years, this one ranks mighty near the top.

Need it be said? Opera is about one thing: singing. Yes, there’s the notion that the genre is a many-splendored concoction, a high-falutin’ gesamtkunstwerk-ish amalgam of the finest that voice and orchestra and dance and costuming and lighting and scenic design can produce. Sure. But take voice away, and there’s nothing left. 

Poof.

Obvious, no? And it’s likewise obvious that, noting the shout-out ovations for this extraordinary Lucia last Friday, some wonderful vocalism in the giddy bel canto style is happening up at the Crosby Theater. That term, bel canto, encompasses an array of techno-specialist vocal activities requiring studio time galore. But for this most bel-canto-istic of operas, a simple, straightforward translation will suffice. Beautiful singing.

Here it’s bellissimo canto. And that’s still to understate Brenda Rae’s presence in the title role, a consummate performance combining vocal agility, physical grace and stylistic nuance. Her Lucia is felt, not acted. The notes are all there—the smooth legato, the fiery fioritura—but Rae brings to the role an art that conceals art and a personality that surpasses the merely operatic.

But she is just the first among equals. As Edgardo, Mario Chang sings her passionate, doomed lover with similar beautiful intensity. His final scene, too often a seemingly tacked-on anticlimax, rings with conviction, fury and despair. Zachary Nelson, previously seen here in comic roles, storms the stage as Enrico, Lucia’s corrosive, coercive brother. A more nuanced Enrico than we often encounter, Nelson retains his bad-boy title in the surprise ending of the piece.

Christian van Horn sings the unhappy chaplain, Raimondo Bidebent, a generally thankless role that in van Horn’s distinguished delivery becomes far less peripheral than usual. Chorus master Susanne Sheston may tire of hearing praise for her work, but she does it again with the help of SFO’s splendid apprentices.
Returning to the pit, Corrado Rovaris leads his terrific orchestra in an energetic, high-voltage reading of a Donizetti score notable for its originality. The horns, in particular, deserve kudos, as does FH Kern, who provides Lucia’s accompaniment in the mad scene. His instrument? A recent reinvention of the glass harmonica called a verrophone that resembles a vitreous marimba minus the mallets.

SFO’s show keeps its focus on the voices, all the way. A disciplined production team puts singing right up front on an essentially bare if handsome stage. Director Ron Daniels is unafraid of stand-and-deliver blocking. An ingenious unit set by Riccardo Hernandez, with its silvery trompe l’oeil coffering gone askew, provides the background for Peter Nigrini’s modest yet effective projections. Luxurious low-key costumes by Emily Rebholz maintain the mood. Christopher Akerlind does the lights, and Zack Winokur’s four frantic dancers set a manic pace for the bloody um mad scene.

But for now, please ignore all this hyperbolic prose. Just head on up the hill. Trills and chills await.

 

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