FAIRFAX CITY, Va., April 15, 2018: Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the greatest achievements in the genre. Not to mention one of the most popular with opera fans everywhere. The Virginia Opera’s excellent production of this masterwork, recently staged at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, proved that point again.
Lucia di Lammermoor is an intriguing mixture of late bel canto beauty and style. Yet it also looks ahead to the full-blown Romanticism that was taking shape in the hearts – and pens – of up-and-coming operatic masters like Verdi and Wagner.
Donizetti meets the Waverly novels
Donizetti composed Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835, during a time when continental European writers, artists and composers were fascinated with all things Scottish.
For his new opera’s story line, Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano worked and reworked elements of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. Both were drawn to the dramatic elements of the story, especially the “family feud” between the Ashtons and the Ravenswoods. But the operatic version alters and simplifies the central plot rather considerably.
Lucia di Lammermoor: The story
The opera’s unfortunate heroine, Lucy Ashton – Rachele Gilmore in this production and “Lucia” in this Italian libretto – is a naïve, innocent but decent young woman who becomes an innocent pawn in this 17thcentury Scottish family feud. She’s fallen in love with the politically down-and-out Edgardo (Joseph Dennis), the last remaining heir to the lands and castle of Ravenswood. That proves a rather large mistake.
In the operatic version of the story, Lucia’s spendthrift brother Enrico (Tim Mix) has quietly schemed to marry his sister off to the wealthy Lord Arturo Bucklaw (Bille Bruley). Enrico obviously plans to use her substantial wedding dowry to clear up his own debts. (Lucia’s mother was the schemer in the original story.)
Furious that Lucia would rather wed his equally penniless enemy, Edgardo, Enrico frames him by “coming into the possession of” a fake letter in which Edgardo appears to spurn Lucia.
Key moments in Lucia
An emotionally shattered Lucia agrees, with great reluctance, to marry Arturo. Since this is opera, the long absent Edgardo bursts in on the nuptials causing chaos. His appearance also ignites the opera’s justly famous sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento?” (“Who restrains me in such a moment?”)
That’s the last straw for our hapless heroine. Offstage in the castle’s bridal suite to consummate her nuptial bliss, Lucia instead stabs Arturo to death and reappears on the stage drenched in blood. That launches this opera’s second memorable scene, Lucia’s “mad scene,” during which the lead soprano heads off into a spectacular variety of disconnected vocal tangents. This extended solo is devilishly complex. Many sopranos make it more so by adding further vocal riffs to what’s already there.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Donizetti’s pair of star crossed lovers ultimately meet their tragic ends as the opera concludes.
The Virginia Opera production
The Virginia Opera’s fine production of Lucia di Lammermoor is something of a paradox. The costuming is quite lavish. But the production itself – the staging – is rather bare-bones.
The forest scenes consist primarily of two-dimensional, drop down trees. The Ashton family’s court itself is similarly sparse in detail. Its back wall is a projected simulation. And its grand staircase – descended by the gruesomely blood-soaked Lucia during her final scene – is built with industrial grade black metal bars.
Normally, we are not fond of such productions. They tend to look cheap which doesn’t help a grand opera feel very grand. Yet in the Virginia Opera’s production, this bare-bones set (augmented by occasional “moving picture” dream sequences) serves to provide a minimalist background for its marvelous cast of singers.
In other words, the production merely hints at this opera’s sweeping scenarios. Instead, it emphasizes its characters and singers. This allows us to focus on the tragic story itself as projected by its accomplished cast.
Enrico and Edgardo
As the opera’s villain and Edgardo’s mortal enemy Enrico, accomplished Baltimore, Maryland-based baritone Tim Mix proved an equally passionate and implacable adversary, although his voice occasionally was overpowered by the orchestra.
As Edgardo, the opera’s heroic but flawed hero, Joseph Dennis used his powerful yet supple and refined tenor voice to faithfully represent his characters wide-ranging emotions.
Side note:We first chanced to hear Mr. Dennis a few seasons back at the Santa Fe Opera. And we do mean “chanced.” With barely two week’s notice, circumstances suddenly forced Mr. Dennis to take over the title role in Santa Fe Opera’s U.S. premiere performances of Huang Ruo’s new opera, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Without warning, Byzantine Chinese political concerns suddenly forced the original Chinese opera star to bow out of the production. Complicating matters further, this opera’s libretto is also in Mandarin Chinese, not English by any stretch.
Mr. Dennis’ virtually flawless heroics in saving that Santa Fe premiere was extensively lauded. If anything, his fine performance in Virginia Opera’s Lucia demonstrates that this young tenor is heading for a brilliant career.
But the soprano usually gets the starring role in most operas. Lucia di Lammermoor is no exception. In this production, the company was most fortunate in its choice of coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore to sing this role. Slight of build, her physical appearance suggested a delicate, sensitive young woman doomed to destruction by powerful forces that reduce her to a political pawn.
Ms. Gilmore’s initial appearance foreshadows this work’s tragic conclusion. Given her apparent frailty, however, she soon startles us with her liquid, quicksilver soprano. Her exquisitely controlled instrument makes everything seem deceptively easy. Yet we know such ease, such fluidity requires great art. This holds true whether she’s executing Donizetti’s demanding legato passages or navigating his tricky, often stratospheric bel canto ornamentations.
With deceptive ease, Ms. Gilmore’s interpretation of this complex role immediately seizes our attention and creates instant sympathy for Lucia’s character. This, in turn, helps the magic happen, particularly in Lucia’s blood-drenched mad scene. It’s this kind of full-bodied vocal and dramatic performance that longtime opera fans continually crave but don’t often quite find. Brava!
Remaining cast members, chorus and orchestra
In addition to the starring trio in this production of Lucia di Lammermoor, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba proved quite impressive in the key, chameleon-like role of Raimondo Bidebent, the Protestant minister for the Ashton court. At once officious and scheming while later remorseful for his part in Lucia’s downfall, Mr. Ollarsaba’s crisply authoritative voice brings order to the proceedings at crucial turns in the story.
In prominent but lesser roles Bille Bruley (Arturo), Melisa Bonetti (Alisa, Lucia’s maid) and Stephen Carroll (Normanno, Enrico’s chief huntsman) also make fine vocal contributions.
An appreciative hat tip is also in order for this opera’s fine chorus work.
Under the baton of Ari Pelto, the Virginia Opera Orchestra (aka, the Richmond Symphony) sounded great throughout. However, they played just a bit too loudly during the opening scenes, making chorus and soloists a bit difficult to hear. Fortunately, that issue worked itself out rather quickly and the rest of the performance was smooth sailing.
Rating: *** ½(Three and one-half out of four stars)
Virginia Opera News: A list of coming attractions
The Virginia Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor was a great way to wrap up its 2017-2018 season. The company’s recently announced 2018-2019 season should be a crowd pleaser, as three of its four operas are longtime audience favorites. Specifically this trio includes Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Don Giovanni, Puccini’s beloved Madama Butterfly, and Donizetti’s warmhearted and hilarious comic opera The Elixir of Love(L’Elisir d’amore).
The new season’s intriguing surprise, however, will be a production of Kurt Weill’s infrequently performed Street Scene, which he regarded as his “American opera for Broadway.” With characteristics of both Broadway and more serious opera, Street Scenein some ways may have foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, as both shows look forward to Broadway and back to classical traditions.
We last saw Street Scenein a fine, fully-staged Wolf Trap Opera production at the Filene Center. Skeptics of new and relatively new operas would be well advised to give this production a chance. It’s slated for a September 28 opening later this year at Virginia Opera’s home base, Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House.
A final note. Virginia opera’s current principal conductor Adam Turner has been appointed as the company’s newest artistic director. It’s a good choice.
Top photo: Edgardo (Joseph Dennis) and Lucia (Rachele Gilmore) in Virginia Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
(Photo by Ben Schill for Virginia Opera)