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In Review > North America

Lucia di Lammermoor

PHILADELPHIA
Philadelphia Opera
9/21/18

In Review PHiladelphia Lucia hdl 1218
Michael Spyres and Brenda Rae in Opera Philadelphia’s Lucia
© Steven Pisano

DONIZETTI'S  Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) first played Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1857, the year the building opened. The twentieth century witnessed many celebrated exponents of the title role at the Academy, but the last main-stage Lucia here was twenty years ago, in 1998. It was high time for a new production at the city’s leading venue. The premiere, on September 21—the second opening in Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival—offered an unusually skilled cast, with no weak links, at work -under Corrado Rovaris’s knowing baton. All but two singers were making OP debuts, as were stage director and costume designer Laurent Pelly, set designer Chantal Thomas and lighting designer Duane Schuler. 

Pelly has directed some of the most brilliant comic opera stagings I’ve ever witnessed, but his intentions here were rather mystifying. American illustrator Edward Gorey’s Victorian world of stifled emotions seemed the lodestar, as in the chorus’s joyless shuffling and stomping, ironically denying their “immenso giubilo.” Lucia Ashton was spasmodically obsessive from the get-go and seemed to imagine “Verrano a te”—an intriguing idea, but if Edgardo’s passion is only in her head, why does he return for her and subsequently commit suicide at the news of her death? Falling snow and snowdrifts constituted the major visual element: with increasing improbability, characters repeatedly knelt and lay in it with seeming disregard for cold or wet. (Lucia made snow angels and shaped snowballs during her first cabaletta.)

The mad scene, refreshingly free of a staircase, contained two current clichés: chairs for the befuddled leading lady to traipse across and a simulated orgasm toward the end of “Ardon gl’incensi.” Late in the evening, two protracted, noisy scene changes stopped the dramatic flow without providing much visible explanation for the delay. Schuler’s lighting provided the keenest sense of atmosphere, given Thomas’s meager and ambiguous sets—were Lucia’s duets with her brother and confessor outside? inside?—and Pelly’s neutral gray-and-black costumes.

American soprano Brenda Rae, an outstanding Amenaide in OP’s 2017 Tancredi, was an admirable but rarely moving Lucia. As an actress, Rae assimilated Pelly’s concept of neurotic adolescent twitchiness all too well, and while her phrasing was intelligently plotted, she never really inhabited the text. The opening cavatina didn’t flatter Rae’s voice, which is not rich in color. The cabaletta—well tricked out with cadenzas—was more impressive, but it wasn’t until “Soffriva nel pianto” that Rae’s instrument took on roundness. She had no trouble riding the sextet, and her mad scene staccatos emerged effortless and breathtaking. 

Michael Spyres’s triumphant Edgardo marked a rare American stage appearance for the Missouri-born tenor, who was in absolutely top form up through the written if rarely observed Act I high E-flat. His clarity of tone and diction, wedded to rhythmically and dramatically alert phrasing and tapered dynamics, made the opera come alive. Pelly didn’t seem inclined to grant Lucia and Edgardo any notable chemistry, but Spyres’s final scene was moving. His voice moved with startling ease—in the original key and with an interpolated high D—through passages in which many famous tenors have strangled even when the key was lowered. This was a thrilling, remarkable performance.

Enrico suits baritone Troy Cook’s vocal resources well, and he contributed an apt characterization and commendable bel canto style, save for a few held tonic high notes evoking the 1970s. The Academy proved a perfect venue for Christian Van Horn’s fine, flexible lyric bass, unusually capable throughout the full range Donizetti demands for Raimondo. 

Unfazed by the brief role’s challenging tessitura, Andrew Owens used a light tremolo that lent his arrogant Arturo a properly nineteenth-century aspect. Recent AVA graduate Hannah Ludwig showed a fresh, beautiful, expansive mezzo as Alisa. Canada’s Adrian Kramer made an effective Normanno vocally and dramatically. 

Rovaris, a Bergamo native like Donizetti, treated the score with respect and affection; most every structure got its second verse. In the mad scene, a satisfyingly harrowing glass harmonica was played by Friedrich Heinrich Kern, as skillful as harpist Sophie Bruno Labiner in the fountain music that—given the wintry set—seemed to issue from Lucia’s imaginings. —David Shengold



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