LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR Opera Review
LA Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor is an unforgettable tour de force of acting, story, sets, singing, sound and fury. With this powerful production’s themes of thwarted love, grand music, stellar performances and imaginatively eye-popping scenic design, Lucia certainly ranks high among this reviewer’s operatic experiences. It is also implicitly a clarion call and cri de coeur for feminism.
In Act 3, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, bereft from familial discord due to “filial ingratitude” and more, the title character laments: “Oh, that way madness lies.” Shakespeare also wrote another immortal drama that reminds this reviewer of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor — Macbeth, because like Lucia it is a bloodstained conflict-filled tragedy set in Scotland with a gloomy castle.
However, Donizetti’s opera, with libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, was not inspired per se by the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (although, interestingly, Cammarano, who also wrote for Giuseppe Verdi, was working on a libretto based on King Lear when the Neapolitan died in 1852). Lucia is actually based on the 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott (who may be best remembered for Ivanhoe), The Bride of Lammermoor, which is set in southeastern Scotland’s Lammermuir Hills and was suggested by a 1669 incident that in turn inspired Scottish folk tales.
Lucia opens at Ravenswood cemetery, where two tombs are visible in what could be described as the operatic equivalent to a cinematic flash forward. Projection and scenic designer Wendall Harrington of New York, scenery designer Carolina Angulo of Bogota and lighting designer Duane Schuler of Wisconsin combine to conjure up a spooky, sepulchral set. No Falstaffian Merry Wives of Windsor this — the audience is in for a tragedy, and an exceedingly unhappy one, which rapidly unfolds.
The opera’s redheaded title character (Muscovite soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who hits all the right notes and high notes), is having a passionate romance with Edgardo (Albanian tenor Saimir Pergu), the heir of the former lord of Ravenswood Castle. Lucia and Edgardo have pledged eternal love to one another; parting is such sweet sorrow as they bid adieu in a duet that just might, sans the benefit of NASA or the Starship Enterprise, transport the listener to another planet, as the enraptured lovders sing, “Verrano a te sull’ aure” (“My ardent sighs will come to you”).
However, Lucia’s nefarious brother Lord Enrico (Pennsylvanian baritone Stephen Powell whose sinister performance elicited playful “boos” during the curtain calls), who has usurped Edgardo’s estate and title, has arranged for his sister to wed the wealthy Lord Arturo (Vladimir Dmitruk, a tenor from Minsk, Belarus) instead. This is a marriage made in hell that will materially benefit — you guessed it — none other than the creepy Enrico, who literally casts giant shadows in a scene deftly engineered by Schuler that is reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s brilliant lighting in his 1944 Ivan the Terrible, Part I.
Her brother’s pimping her out drives poor Lucia off the deep end, as all Hades breaks loose. Enrico actually has the nerve to taunt frantic Edgardo by reminding him of his lover’s “bridal bed” with another man. However, rather than enjoying libidinal splendor, during Lucia’s wedding night she emerges from her bridal chamber in a blood spattered white gown, appearing on an altar that is cleverly shaped like an Aztec temple (implying human sacrifice). Although it’s unclear as to whether or not her early morning trysts with Edgardo actually involved sexual relations, the blood on her white garment can suggest a virginal Lucia’s deflowering by her proposed husband Arturo. But in a very Freudian way (albeit 21 years before the founder of psychoanalysis was born), the blood has been caused by quite another action, which this plot averse critic won’t reveal. Lucia is, perhaps, a latter day Lady Macbeth, her fellow Scottish madwoman, and in her blood drenched dress one half expects Lucia to sing: “Out, damned spot!”
What comes through loud and clear across the centuries, however, is the untenable position of women in patriarchal society, where they are (mis)treated as merely property, with no human rights, whatsoever. Donizetti and Cammarano shrewdly underscore this point with the reappearance of Edgardo upon the scene. Believing that his beloved Lucia has betrayed his love and their mutual vows of fidelity he rather cruelly, viciously turns upon her. Like Enrico he even threatens Lucia with physical violence. Never mind that the audience knows that Enrico and his cohorts have conspired to trick the lovers and turn them against one another, with rumors, forged letters and the type of disinformation the CIA would be right at home with. The point is that like Lucia’s self-serving brother, her lover, too, believes he has a proprietary claim on her (and, perhaps, upon her maidenhead). Because in patriarchal society the female of the species are nothing more than chattel to be disposed of like property owned by the all-powerful males — something that, alas, remains relevant as the rightwing contemporary “War On Women” is waged.
The brother-sister relationship between Enrico and Lucia is also fraught with Freudian frisson. In addition to ensuring his status and wealth through his marrying off of his sister to the titled, entitled, rich Arturo, Enrico might have had another, deeper psychological motive for denying and foiling Lucia’s passion for Edgardo. Enrico and Lucia may have had a buried, incestuous desire for one another. Indeed, when Lucia is going mad she mistakes her brother for both her husband to be and her lover, Edgardo. (Paging Dr. Freud! Wanted onstage at the Dorothy Chandler!)
In any case, her untenable position as a mere commodity and piece of property drives poor Lucia over the proverbial bend. Shagimuratova’s aria here is nothing short of sublime — as is her entire performance — and quite deserving of the many bravos and curtain calls she elicited. Much of Donizetti’s music for Lucia di Lammermoor is ebullient, frothy, with the melodious sounds of the harp, triangle and some brassy melodramatic music with timpani flourishes. The orchestra performs admirably under James Conlon’s baton, and ditto for the chorus under the direction of the L.A. Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon.
But the icing on the cake is rendered by Thomas Bloch, a French musician imported to play the glass harmonica, an archaic instrument co-invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin in 1761. At a behind-the-scenes March 7 tour of LA Opera Bloch demonstrated this rare musical contraption which, if memory serves correctly, has a series of about 37 cut glass bowels of different sizes arranged with a shaft running through the crystalline goblets. Imagine a glassy pig on a spit or a crystal shish kebob. In any case, Bloch demonstrated that when the spindle — operated by a foot peddle — turns and the musician touches the sliced glassy rims with fingers dipped in hard water (which Bloch imported from France), a singular sound is emitted which has a distinctly ethereal resonance.
This otherworldly sound is used sparingly but to great effect in the current production of Lucia di Lammermoor, and is heard primarily as the grief stricken protagonist loses her mind. According to Bloch and LA Opera’s Senior Director of Production Rupert Hemmings, Donizetti specifically composed the music to be performed with the glass harmonica, but it has rarely been done so since 1839, when the instrument was outlawed.
The reason for its prohibition is especially resonant in terms of organic unity of form and content, both on- and offstage. Around 15 musicians who played the glass harmonica went mad (talk about suffering for your art!!!), which led to its banning until the 20th century, when it was reintroduced. It is now believed that the glass used in the 18th and 19th century contained lead, and that lead poisoning — not the strange, spiritual sound emanating from the instrument — caused insanity. Nevertheless, the glass harmonica is the ideal musical medium for expressing madness in this opera about a woman who is so miserably oppressed by male chauvinism that she quite literally loses her mind. And, this reviewer hastens to add, with music composed by an artiste who also, alas, eventually went stark, staring mad.
In conjunction with and complementing this distinctive sound are highly evocative projections, sets and scrims, including some images that reminded this scribbler of Edvard Munch’s harrowing masterpiece The Scream. In his dialogue in Act 3, Scene 4 of King Lear the aggrieved, aged monarch also speaks of “this contentious storm” and “The tempest in my mind”, which LA Opera’s talented team of projection, scenic, scenery and lighting designers render with aplomb, under the umbrella of Elkhanah Pulitzer’s adroit direction in her mainstage debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Donizetti never set foot on the Scottish moors or highlands; the opera shows this weakness and is a case study in stereotyping that is beyond the scope of this article. Christine Cook’s green costumes in the wedding sequence are more evocative of the Emerald Isle across the water than of Scotland, and no kilts, plaids or McGillicuddys are glimpsed in the whole megillah (speaking of which, happy Purim!). And it doesn’t help that these “Scots” sing in Donizetti’s native tongue: Italian.
Lucia di Lammermoor is being performed Thursday March 20, Wednesday March 26 and Saturday March 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays March 23 and April 6 at 2:00 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).