ENTICING SINGING BUT LESS THAN DISTINGUISHED DIRECTION IN PACIFIC OPERA’S LUCIA
Donizetti, LUCIA DE LAMMERMOOR, Tracy Dahl (Lucia), Ernesto Ramírez (Edgardo), James Westman (Enrico), Giles Tomkins (Raimondo), Owen McCausland (Arturo), Josh Lovel (Normanno), Michèle Bogdanowicz (Alisa),Victoria Symphony Orchestra and the Pacific Opera Chorus, conducted by Timothy Vernon, Royal Theatre, February 22, 2015.
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has enjoyed a varied history since its premiere in 1835. Throughout much of the 19th century, it was considered the quintessential Romantic opera, thanks largely to its being based on a story by that century’s most popular author, Sir Walter Scott, beloved for his exotic historical settings, his play with the supernatural, and his star-crossed lovers. The opera was also immediately recognized as an extraordinary vehicle for a soprano with a gift for fioritura. Unfortunately, by the end of the century this characteristic had come to predominate, with much of the opera being cut as insufficiently spectacular vocally. Performances often ended with Lucia’s mad scene, leaving us without the tomb scene and the splendid closing aria of Edgardo. Some of the opera’s more effective confrontations were also cut: for example, Raimondo’s failure of Lucia after her brutal encounter with her brother Enrico in Act 2, Scene 1, or the slinging match at Ravenswood between Edgardo and Enrico at the beginning of Act 3 (the 19th century’s favourite scene). As its dramatic shape became increasingly disfigured, the opera survived almost exclusively as a warhorse for a coloratura soprano. It was only in the bel canto revival of the 1950s, thanks largely to Maria Callas, in the role of Lucia, that the opera regained its status as a powerful drama about the catastrophic effects of patriarchal ownership of women.
Audiences have always thrilled to the vocal pyrotechnics of Lucia’s mad scene, perhaps the most effective ever written. But the opera’s greatest strength lies in its dramatic presentation of the power wielded by Enrico over his sister and the terrible suffering this exacts. Donizetti is noted for his confrontation scenes (from which Verdi learned much), and none are more riveting than those found in this opera. So, a company hoping to present Lucia must meet several requirements: a Lucia with the skill to execute the brilliant vocal writing as well as the dramatic demands of her role; two robust male leads to present the two headstrong men in Lucia’s life; and an Edgardo with the vocal ability to sing one of the most haunting tenor arias in the repertoire.
Tracy Dahl as Lucia was terrific, navigating her stratospheric role with panache. She met the demands of her mad scene with flexibility and precision, elegant legato phrasing and accuracy in the difficult leaps in the score. Her sweet light voice matched her character, providing the youth and vulnerability her role calls for. Her ornaments provided not just beauty, but evidence of a tragic loss of the heroine’s faculties.
Ernesto Ramírez as Edgardo was also excellent, displaying a burnished tenor voice with a thrilling baritonal finish. At times his voice could have been stronger, but he did a wonderful job of his great number in the opera, his closing aria, which he presented with fine legato and mezza voce. James Westman as Enrico was strong, as was Giles Tomkins as Raimondo, if a trifle wobbly. Owen McCausland as Arturo was excellent, with ringing tenor tones, making a notable job of a minor role. Also acquitting herself well in a minor role was Michèle Bogdanowicz as Alisa.
The dramatic side, however, left much to be desired. This has to be laid at the door of director Glynis Leyshon. First, there was her decision to set the opera in 1940s Britain and introduce the note of fascism into the work. This misrepresents the opera and introduces serious distractions into the action. Ms. Leyshon claims that by stripping away the misty Gothic Romanticism of Scott’s novel and setting the opera in 1940s Britain with a touch of fascism, she has ‘honour[ed] the dark heart of Donizetti’s opera,’ placing Lucia ‘in a brutal world where the destruction of a woman’s mind and spirit is the inevitable collateral damage that we are forced to read about every day.’ First of all, there is nothing in the opera, even as Ms. Layshon presents it, to suggest that Lucia’s plight is collateral damage of fascist politics. In fact, the presence of fascism consists of little more than a bunch of men rushing about in fascist uniforms, like so many theatrical clichés. Lucia’s suffering derives from the cultural demand that women marry to satisfy the needs of male members of the family, something that was true in the original setting of the story, but certainly not in Britain in the 1940s. British women during WW II enjoyed considerable freedom, taking the jobs of many of the men away fighting. Very few could have found themselves in Lucia’s predicament. In my view, the director did not sufficiently think through the implications of her updating.
Second, there was something strange in the stage movement throughout. In virtually every scene, there were some actions that struck this viewer as puzzling, characters darting about in ways that made no sense or gesturing in ways that seemed unmotivated. For example, why did Enrico suddenly scurry across the stage and flatten himself against the wall at the beginning of his confrontation with Edgardo at Ravenswood? To show a fearful response to Edgardo’s anger? Well, both are angry, and nothing in Enrico’s dialogue indicates fearfulness or would imply this sort of action. Was it decisions of this kind that led to acting which itself seemed uniformly stilted and jerky? Perhaps the most natural actors were Michèle Bogdanowicz as Alisa and Owen McCausland as Arturo. Edgardo and Enrico especially, seemed largely estranged from their bodies, while Giles Tomkins as Raimondo proved rather mannered. Lucia was better, though at times stiff and graceless. Happily, her mad scene was for the most part convincing, thanks largely to the power of the singing.
The chorus was good, in an opera that makes telling use of it. I liked the betrothal scene, with blocking that highlighted the principals and gave good placing to the crowd. Especially effective was the momentary framing of the principals by the partiers at the beginning of the scene, gathered lower stage left looking upstage at the goings on. The sextet concluding the scene was excellent, with the various voices blending well under the sure baton of the conductor. The sextet is virtually a concluding concertato, that type of scene that is most ‘operatic’ in an opera—for which read least ‘natural’. Yet a concertato achieves something you can’t get in spoken-word drama: figures caught up in a mutual event simultaneously voicing their individual responses to it. So, through this artificiality, a psychologically true moment is revealed. I thought the production caught this aspect well by having the six singers standing perfectly still facing the audience, each character isolated in his own spotlight.
This leads to the set and lighting. Rather than attempting realism, the set comprised tall indefinable structures standing throughout for the various locations of the opera: a garden, a hall, a tomb, and so on. It remained virtually the same throughout, though taking on shades of location through lighting and slight physical transformation—for example, one structure looking ragged in the representation of the ruined castle of Ravenswood. Regarding the lighting, I found its sudden shifts to represent alternation of ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ scenes especially effective. The height of the set emphasized the relative powerlessness of the characters, Lucia particularly. Its minimalism allowed the production a degree of flexibility, as it was not locked into a specific representation. In this way, it made for a fluid and suggestive playing space.
So, overall, an uneven production, with the music and singing better than the drama. Regarding the music, Timothy Vernon and the orchestra did a fine job with this gorgeous score, bringing out its many beauties, and giving us a memorable bel canto experience
© Harvey De Roo 2015
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