LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR: Opera Review
Composer Gaetano Donizetti may have been born in the 18th century and his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor may be based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, which was published 1819. But the updated version of Lammermoor that LA Opera is rather gloriously kicking off its 2022/23 season with is a startlingly spectacular state of the art production that is arguably the most cutting edge operatic live show that this longtime reviewer has ever had the good luck to behold. As directed by Switzerland’s Simon Stone, this rendition of an early 19th century work is a role model in how to successfully update classics for 21st century audiences, just as Leonard Bernstein and company brilliantly reset the tragic saga of Verona’s teen age sweethearts in Romeo and Juliet to Manhattan’s mean streets in West Side Story for 20th century viewers.
Like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, the romance between Lucia (performed by Dallas soprano Amanda Woodbury until Sept. 24 and Minnesota Soprano Liv Redpath from Sept. 28-Oct. 9) and Edgardo (that LA Opera stalwart leading man, sonorous Sonora tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz) is thwarted. The cockblock for Lucia and Edgardo’s intensely passionate love affair is her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton, malevolently portrayed by South Carolina baritone, Alexander Birch Elliott. Although there has been enmity between Edgardo and Enrico, Lucia’s sibling comes between his sister and her true love for the vilest of reasons: He’s broke and seeking a reversal in fortune, Enrico wants to marry his sister off to the wealthy Arturo, aka Lord Arthur Bucklaw (Florida tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro). The arranged marriage causes all hell to break loose, leading to calamity in this tragedy of thwarted love.
According to the program, Lammermoor’s action has been moved from 17th century Scotland to “a declining present-day town in America’s Rust Belt.” The plot of the libretto by Salvatore Cammarano based on Scott’s novel is, to be sure extremely powerful, as is Donizetti’s bel canto music. But what makes this production so fresh and outstanding is its extraordinarily innovative staging. First of all, not only does the live show incorporate video projected on a screen above the stage (projections by Englishman Luke Halls), but a camera crew is seen as it shoots the footage that simultaneously appears overhead (although some of the imagery has been pre-shot and is incorporated into the proceedings, including some black and white scenes). I’ve seen this technique used for a few plays, but never before for an opera per se.
Furthermore, the scenery, which evokes small town USA, plays an integral role in the unfolding of the drama. The set includes a reservoir or dam, Lucia’s expertly rendered home, vehicles, a pharmacy, pawn shop and the gigantic screen (sometimes split in two) of a drive-in movie theater playing 1947’s My Favorite Brunette, starring Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour – but not Bing, since this is not a “Road” movie, but rather “a parody of the detective film genre,” according to Stephen Youngkin’s The Lost One. Instead of Crosby, the flick co-stars actors associated with scary pictures, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre, as a gangster nicknamed “Cuddles.” The black and white comedy opens with Hope behind bars at San Quentin in a cell on death row, awaiting execution. Although that particular scene isn’t shown onscreen, My Favorite Brunette’s theme apparently provides counterpoint to Lammermoor’s grisly tale.
In addition to the screening and projections, Englishwoman Lizzie Clachan’s bravura sets on a revolving stage frequently move, enhancing the cinematic sensibility of this hyper-imaginative production that rethinks opera, which is commonly considered to be a highbrow, stuffy art form for contemporary viewers. But this is opera like you’ve never seen it before.
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A central part of Clachan’s set is a motel, where the passionate Lucia and Edgardo enjoy a tryst, which calls to mind Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 bone chiller opens with the illicit lovers Janey Leigh and married John Gavin embracing in a hotel room. Leigh’s longing to legitimize their affair inevitably, inexorably leads to the Bates Motel, where she meets her gruesome fate in the shower in a room at the Bates Motel that bears a resemblance to Lammermoor’s dingy refuge for the opera’s doomed lovers. And in what appears to this cinefile to be a reference to yet another movie, Lucia looks like the title character in an infamous scene in Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie (Spanish costumer Blanca Anon makes her LA Opera debut here).
Of course, the quintessence of the operatic medium is music, in particular the voice, which is especially essential to and emphasized in the bel canto style, a term translated from Italian into English as “beautiful singing.” According to Fred Plotkin’s Opera 101, “A particular specialty in bel canto is the mad scene, a solo set piece in which a soprano enacts insanity or despair in musical terms… The most famous mad scene is from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.” (Unsurprisingly, poor Donizetti himself ultimately went mad…)
Amanda Woodbury’s warbling is virtuoso during the famed “Mad Scene” in Act III. Her sublime singing is extremely effective and moving as it expresses Lucia’s being driven mad by a cruel world that just won’t leave the lovers alone. It sounded to this reviewer’s ears like a classical music form of scatting, with sounds rather than lyrics conveying and eliciting mood and meaning. Along with Act I’s farewell duet expertly crooned by Lucia and Edgardo, “Verranno a te sull’ aure” (“My ardent sighs will come to you”), these two pieces are probably the best numbers in Lammermoor, sensitively conducted by LA Opera’s new Resident Conductor, Colombian Lina Gonzalez-Granados. Jeremy Frank is the chorus director of the production’s cast of dozens, with skillful choreography by Ohio’s Kitty McNamee and brawls and intimacy overseen by Corning, New York’s Andrew Kenneth Moss.
The stellar stagecraft brings Donizetti’s almost two centuries-old opera back to life with a modernist, up-to-the minute verve. This tragic plotline combined with mise-en-scene and sets as fluid as a film makes for deeply compelling storytelling, ultra-imaginatively helmed by Stone, who, appropriately, hails from Basel, the Swiss city where chemist Albert Hofmann invented LSD.
If I have a lament, without divulging a plot spoiler (is 203 years since Scott’s book was published too soon?), it’s that justice is not rendered in the original story, alas. But then again, in real life, how often are dramatic events neatly giftwrapped and tied up with a bow? In any case, it is heartbreaking as Edgardo, hoping to join Lucia in heaven, sings in the grand finale’s aria: “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” (“Thou hast spread they wings”), as the beleaguered lover prepares to meet his dire fate. With the thrilling, thoroughly modern Lucia di Lammermoor, LA Opera is showing Angelenos a new way forward for an old, if venerable art form, and kicking off its new season with a tough act to follow, that’s exciting for the ear, eye and heart. See it with the partner you’re in love with. BRAVISSIMO!
Lucia di Lammermoor is being presented Saturday, Sept. 24 and Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sundays, Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 at 2:00 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets go here; (213)972-8001.