Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Producer/Director: Mary Zimmerman
Lucia: Natalie Dessay
Edgardo: Joseph Carreja
Lord Enrico Ashton: Ludovic Tézier
Raimondo: Kwangchul Youn
The prospect of spending three hours and forty minutes cooked up in an opera house may sound like pure torture to some (My colleague Amy quizzically asked: “And you pay for THAT?”), but when the stage is graced by the vibrant presence of French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in her signature role of Lucia de Lammermoor, it suddenly becomes a much more enticing offer. I had only a vague but generally pleasant recollection of the Zimmermann production of Donizetti’s Bel canto masterpiece from two years ago, when I saw it with Diane Damrau in the title role, so I figured that the time had come to go back and check it out again with a new cast, a cast that allegedly features the ultimate soprano for that challenging career-making role (Just see what it did for Dame Joan Sutherland). Needless to say that the late hour of the performance on a week night did not appeal to me in the least (Not only is it a long one, but it started at 8:30 p.m.), but I decided to soldier on and hike up Broadway to the Lincoln Center one more time… all for Natalie.
Despite a highly prolific œuvre during his short life, Gaetano Donizetti is not exactly a household name as far as opera composers go. Beside the silly, if melodically blessed, L’Elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale and La Fille du régiment (this one is more of an operetta anyway, no?), he is mostly remembered for one work, but what work! Inspired by the historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which itself is based on a true Scottish story, the supremely Romantic opera Lucia de Lammermoor faithfully keeps the winning explosive cocktail of feuding families, a pair of star-crossed lovers and the ever-mysterious Scottish moors. With Donizetti's highly dramatic score to support the tragic plot, all a director needs are magnificent singers so that the uneven structure and the off-putting length of the whole thing are just forgotten.
The lead singer was, predictably, magnificent indeed on Tuesday night. Although these past couple of years she has been afflicted by vocal ailments, prompting the unavoidable lament by some that “she does not sound like used to”, Natalie Dessay was in superb form. Her petite silhouette barely containing her light but viscerally intense voice, she handled the vocal acrobatics of Lucia’s increasingly fragile state of mind with literally flying colors. Her steady combination of innocence and vulnerability was spot-on for the part and her natural charisma did the rest. The most famous mad scene in the history of opera unfolded on a minimalist set featuring a bare balcony and a grand staircase against a dark sky and moon, which made her ghostly appearance in the blood-stained wedding dress and her subtle but deeply emotional singing even more striking. Just for that understated but genuinely poignant scene, the seemingly endless 40-minute second intermission due to the set change was whole-heartedly forgiven.
But a splendid Lucia does not the opera completely make, and if her cast mates had not lived up to expectations, the evening may still have ended up being a long one. Luckily for us, the important shoes of lover boy Edgardo were masterfully filled by ardent Maltese tenor Joseph Carreja, who surely does not lack either in charismatic presence or in vocal power. His two big, difficult arias come around last and their blasting lyricism acted as a welcome release of all the repressed tension accumulated during the emotionally draining mad scene. Never missing a beat, Joseph Carreja effortlessly pulled through and was superbly eloquent until his very last breath.
The role of Enrico, Lucia’s brother, had gone to French baritone Ludovic Tézier, who sang it with beautifully dark and rich tones. His hard-hearted and pitiless decisions may have been made more out of circumstantial desperation than sheer cruelty, but the result was just as gory. As Raimondo, the well-meaning chaplain who is trying to make sense of it all, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was poised and engaging.
The production, which sets the action in the 19th century, was overall successful at conveying a brooding Romantic mood with an attractive recreation of the wild Scottish moors, complete with threatening black branches rising up against a chromatic pink sky, branches that will be seen again on huge photos over the curtain during the intermissions. The sheet-covered furniture in a too large castle added a touch of aristocratic decadence, and the almost bare set of the mad scene was economically arresting. Even if everything was not perfect (Did we really need a “real” ghost during Act I? I didn’t think so either.), the décors and costumes generally served the production well.
The music of course revolves around the title role’s tragic story and she does have gorgeous moments to dwell in and dazzle the audience with, beside the exquisite show-stopper that is the mad scene. The other indisputable highlight of the composition is the outstanding Sextet of Act II, where two tenors, a baritone, a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a bass join forces for one of opera’s most celebrated ensemble numbers. And you don’t even have to put yourself through the actual opera to hear it since it regularly appears in popular culture, from Bug Bunny cartoons to Jack Nicholson’s ringtone in Martin Scorcese’s The Departed and more.
On Tuesday night, the musical feast that is Donizetti’s glorious score was in the very capable hands of Patrick Summers, who I had incidentally just heard conduct Iphigénie in Tauride the previous week. (Maybe we should stop meeting like that. On the other hand, maybe not.) The orchestra kept the music sweepingly Romantic and beautifully tragic, efficiently wrapping everything up five minutes ahead of schedule. Now that’s what I call yet another successful night at the opera.