Washington National Opera’s ‘Lucia’: superb singing, shadowy staging

The soloists, especially Sarah Coburn, are great. You just can't see them.


WASHINGTON, November 11, 2011 – The Washington National Opera’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s beloved Lucia di Lammermoor is both brilliant and maddening. It’s distinguished by its phenomenal soloists and a psychologically provocative, updated setting. But on opening night, both cast and crew were undermined, at least visually, by the production’s sepulchral lighting scheme. Also an issue: a chorus that tended to set its own breakneck and ignore the clear, sensible direction of WNO conductor and music director Philippe Auguin.

Based on Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish novel “The Bride of Lammermoor,” Lucia, first performed in 1835, is the melodramatic tale of a beleaguered and very pre-feminist young woman. She’s driven to madness by her amoral and avaricious brother, Enrico, who, with his macho minions, is primarily interested in murder and money, pretty much in that order. To that end, to recapitalize and re-enroll in the Scottish 1% class, he appropriates the neighboring estate and railroads his sister into marrying the wealthy Arturo.

Enter Enrico’s hapless neighbor, Edgardo, the sole survivor of Enrico’s latest predation. Guess who’s secretly fallen in love with him? Lucia, of course. When Enrico discovers this, he’s infuriated and forcefully concludes Lucia’s sham nuptials with Arturo. Lucia flips out with the most spectacular mad scene in the history of opera, and the predictable carnage begins. Who says tragic opera is boring?

WNO has chosen to employ a production originated by the English National Opera for the current Lucia, which the company last performed here in 2002. The English sets depict the depressing interior of a decaying Scottish mansion, updating the opera’s action to the early Victorian era. But director David Alden and associate director Ian Rutherford have employed monochromatic costuming and a gloomy lighting scheme to transform this interior into nothing less than an insane asylum—the perfect setting for Lucia’s pathologically dysfunctional family and retinue.

Problem is, someone forgot to turn on the lights. Granted, gloom and doom is perfectly okay for an opera like Lucia, despite this critic’s well-known aversion toward boring, Eurogray productions of nearly everything. (They’ve have remained somehow fashionably “avant-garde” for nearly forty years or so and counting.) That said, however, this production’s lighting design—attributed to Zeb Lalljee and associate Jeff Bruckerhoff—skews wide of the mark, plunging the stage into tableaux of atmospheric but disastrously overlong shadows and voids that, for at least seventy-five per cent of the opera’s running time, almost entirely obscure the cast and chorus.

Matters are made worse by the fact that—with the modest exception of Edgardo, whose sartorial splendor blooms with Scottish muted browns—the remaining cast and chorus is clad in shades of black, white, and gray. Combine this with the lighting scheme or lack thereof, and you wish the KenCen had arranged for the Pentagon to loan out surplus night-vision goggles so the audience could actually see the soloists they’d paid to see.

As murky as this particular production may be, however, an opera performance rises and falls on the quality of the singing. Blessed with a first-rate cast of singers, the WNO without question has a winner here from a musical standpoint. Each primary soloist possesses specific strengths that enhance each role.

Lucia’s vocal centerpiece, of course, is its dreadfully put-upon heroine. As Lucia, winsome soprano Sarah Coburn—already a local favorite—gives an intriguing, complex performance, portraying her character as an impressionistic girl, barely an adult and already somewhat remote from the reality of her situation even during her first innocent entrance and solo.

Ms. Coburn’s lightly-sculpted lyric soprano contributes a sense of innocence to this opera’s otherwise brutal world, adding a delicately balanced poignancy to her character that other productions of Lucia tend to miss. Vocally, she’s superb, effortlessly nailing her top notes and gliding through Donizetti’s most difficult ornamentation and trills as if she’s been singing this role practically forever.

Our only quibble with her performance on opening night was a rather trembly vibrato that materialized during her opening scene—something we’ve never heard from this singer before and something that vanished quickly enough.

As expected, Lucia’s “mad scene” gave Ms. Coburn ample opportunity to put her own stamp on one of opera’s most famous set pieces. At this point, her character—savagely betrayed by her brother and spurned by her uncomprehending lover—has gone completely to pieces. Covered in blood, she’s terminated her forced marriage to Arturo rather more quickly and efficiently than Kim Kardashian ended hers. Now entirely disconnected from reality, she wanders about the stage incoherently, snatching snippets of her imagined present and past out of thin air. Ms. Coburn wanders like a somnambulist, allowing her vocal lines to wander with Lucia’s hallucinations.

Enhancing this marvelously haunting performance was the real instrumental master-stroke of the evening, as the orchestra added a “glass harmonica”** to the accompaniment. Actually scored by Donizetti for the opera’s initial performances, its spooky, shimmering echoes underscore the pure madness of Lucia and her situation. It’s a shame that most performances of the opera today neglect to employ it.

As monk-tutor Raimondo, bass Mirco Palazzi sang the role less sympathetically than in many productions, portraying his character as almost entirely lacking in conscience. His diction was remarkably crisp and accurate, and his voice added heft and an unaccustomed graciousness to the ensembles.

Baritone Michael Cioldi portrays Enrico as a cold, twisted psychopath. Undoubtedly at David Alden’s directorial suggestion, Mr. Cioldi’s Enrico exhibits further signs of depravity early in the opera’s second half. He compulsively appropriates his sister’s childhood toys and forcibly restrains her, suggesting a history of incest and sadism among his character’s other stellar qualities. He’s quite the villain in this production, and underlines his character’s inner motivations with a menacing, almost snarling vocal delivery.

As the flawed hero, Edgardo, tenor Saimir Pirgu is, well, flawed. Impulsive, irrational, and arguably as close to the mental edge as is Lucia, Mr. Pirgu sings Edgardo as a man who’s very close to the edge as his world rapidly collapses before him. With a surprisingly bitter tenor, he’s a vocal match for Mr. Cioldi’s coldness. Their scenes together crackle with tension.

In ensemble, these fine soloists shone most brightly in the opera’s well-known sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento?” (“What holds me back in such a moment?”). Here, Edgardo is joined by Enrico, Lucia, Raimondo, and—a bit later on—Lucia’s unlucky husband Arturo (tenor Corey Even Rotz who sang the role in WNO’s last production) and her servant Alisa (mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko). Here, each character-vocalist unites with the others, pouring out individual and collective guilt and misery in an operatic set piece whose sublimity may never again be equaled. It’s a magical musical moment, and the excellence of Thursday evening’s reprise is likely to be long remembered here.

Aside from our vigorous lighting complaint, glitches in this production were remarkably few. Again, the most obvious and annoying was the lengthy Act I disconnect between the chorus and the conductor—blessedly remedied for the most part by the time Act II rolled around. It’s hard to understand why this occurred over such a sustained period, save for another strange directorial choice of having the chorus mill about outside the windows of the set. This may have made it difficult to maintain even minimal eye contact with the conductor. Hopefully, WNO will remedy this problem in successive performances, leaving only the lighting as a major issue.

WNO is rotating two casts of primary soloists during this run of Lucia. If we can, we’ll try to catch the alternate cast in a performance this week and provide an update to this review.

For tickets, information on the casts, and dates and times of Lucia’s remaining performances, visit WNO’s site—now part of the Kennedy Center website.

** Although the “glass harmonica” for this production actually appears on stage, the performing instrument in the orchestra pit and is being played by soloist William Zeitler for these performances.

The glass harmonica (sometimes “glass armonica”) was a mechanical instrument invented by Ben Franklin. Franklin was a good amateur musician himself, and enjoyed the novelty effect of the “glass harp,” a novelty instrument created using wine goblets tuned by filling them with varying levels of water and playing the rims with moistened fingers.

Mozart and several other noted composers actually wrote music for the glass harp. But Franklin, always the tinkerer, chose to transform this somewhat random instrument into a series of tuned, concentric glass plates that turned on a mechanical device, providing more uniformity of sound and greater opportunity for virtuosity.

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