Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Guys of Lammermoor

San Francisco Opera staged a new production of Donizetti's evergreen Lucia di Lammermoor  this fall. Based on Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor, the opera has held the stage continuously since its premiere in 1835. Yes, I expect that there will be a few bicentenary productions twenty years hence.

By then, this production is likely to be dead and buried, just like the skewed-perspective production done in 1999 and the 2007 production that I can't tell you about because I skipped it entirely.

The new production, with design and projections by Erhard Rom, directed by Michael Cavanagh, looks good. It's based on a memorial of some kind in Italy, and so there's a lot of fake marble on stage, both inside the castle and outside in the gardens. It's so orderly that there is not much sense of nature or of Scottish wilderness, both of which I think are, or should be, part of the environment of this particular opera, so the looks sort of go for nothing.

Photo by Cory Weaver, SF Opera

Also, Enrico's study looks like it was designed by Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. This is evidently because of a time shift from early 19th c. Scotland to the middle of the 20th c.

It's true that there is a rocky Scottish coast visible through the picture window. Presumably they've got a really really good boiler installed in the Ashton manse.

Piotr Beczala (Edgardo Ravenswood) and Brian Mulligan (Enrico Ashton) 
duke it out at the Wolf's Crag.
Photo by Cory Weaver, SF Opera

The big exception is the Wolf's Crag scene, in which Enrico Ashton confronts his political enemy - the man whose estate he has stolen - Edgardo Ravenswood. This is set on a terrace that evidently is floating up in the clouds someplace; it was vertiginous to behold because of the swirling clouds, but still, somehow, it seems perhaps a bit too neat for rural Scotland.

Also, everyone is dressed in...what? Mid-century urban clothes? There were plenty of trench coats, which I thought had left with Pamela Rosenberg were no longer de rigueur in updated productions. There's just one exception, which I'll get to later in this review.

I could not figure out the motivation for the updated production. Is Enrico supposed to be a 20th c. criminal? If so, I couldn't tell; I would have needed a lot more overt violence for this point to get across.

The singing really was very good, with the handsome Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, not heard here for a few years, unveiling a darker and more burnished sound than in his last appearance. Brian Mulligan - basically the star of the fall season, with starring roles in Lucia, Sweeney Todd, and the Poe double bill - sang beautifully as the Bad Guy. So did Nicolas Teste as Raimondo (Lucia's spiritual advisor) and AJ Glueckert as Normanno, Enrico's henchman. Tenor Chong Wang looked natty in plaid as doomed bridegroom Arturo but sounded less comfortable than as Hylas in the summer's Les Troyens. Zanda Sveda was memorable as Lucia's companion Alisa despite having about only about 30 measures to sing.

Still, overall, it wasn't what I'd call a great Lucia. And it's largely because the most memorable singing came from the men who are not the star of this particular show, full stop.

Oh, wait. I seem not to have discussed the star of the show.

So when Diana Damrau's withdrawal was announced, I hit my head against the wall a few times, and I'm sure you did too. The German soprano is a wonderful performer with a great voice, and I had seen her replacement, Nadine Sierra, only once before, as Papagena in The Magic Flute.

Sierra, then an Adler Fellow, was an excellent Papagena and the role seemed an excellent fit, which is why I was a bit surprised when she was announced as the Nozze Countess in the 2014-15 season. It's a role that requires more gravity than your typical mid-20s Papagena has. I had tickets to that revival, but wound up swapping them for a pair of tickets to Troyens that I gave to friends, so I missed Sierra's Countess.

I'd love to tell you that she was a spectacular Lucia, the greatest replacement ever, but I'm afraid I really can't. She was certainly competent, singing the fioriture with a good legato and executing the trills cleanly. She did a good job with Lucia's famous Mad Scene, in tune and beautifully coordinated with principal flutist Julie McKenzie (who got a well-deserved on-stage solo bow at the end of it all) although...well, it was a remarkably polite Mad Scene, especially considering the Grand Guignol crime scene she left behind.

Nadine Sierra as Lucia
Photo by Cory Weaver, SF Opera
Maybe she used up all her verve killing him.

I hear that the bridegroom shown above was a body double, not Chong Wang. Personal to the stage designers and makeup artists: we've all seen a lot of CSI and Law & Order:SVU, and the spatter on the walls just doesn't match the wounds on the corpse!

But the big problem with Sierra was that she just wasn't very exciting or interesting. Her voice is pretty enough but not remarkably so; her singing was good enough but not spectacularly so. And this opera is best when the title character can bring a little spectacle to it....and not just the spectacle provided by a particularly bloody bedchamber.

Oh, and that exception I mentioned above: somehow, Lucia was the only character on stage dressed in 19th c. clothing, except, of course, for the ghosts who, irritatingly enough, kept popping up throughout the opera.

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