Friday, July 11, 2008

It's not ALL about the soprano

Part II of my post on Lucia di Lammermoor.

Thoughts on the production:

As you can see from the pictures, this was a fairly traditional Lucia, with 17th-century Scottish costumes that used the convenient device of tartan plaids to distinguish the rival families: Enrico is blue, Edgardo red. Though it's implausible that every guest at Enrico's wedding would be wearing blue-toned clothing, it made for a nice contrast when Edgardo burst in! Despite the fact that he was wearing a really terrible wig that looked like it cost $5 at a Halloween-costume store.

Sets were minimalist, and probably looked worse from my balcony vantage point than from the orchestra section--I could see how the floor panels making up the "moor" interlocked, for instance. As I said in my earlier post, the big pairs of sliding walls seemed inexplicable until I saw them do that wonderful iris effect at the top of the Mad Scene. I was surprised that they used real water onstage in the "fountain" (more like a spring) where "Regnava nel silenzio" takes place. Natalie Dessay, in a girlish moment, splashed it around.

The lead male roles were taken by Italian singers--Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo and Gabriele Viviani as Enrico. I'm still trying to learn what opera fans mean when they describe singing as "Italianate", but judging from these two men, it means "declamatory." Filianoti did not always succeed in coloring and shading his voice. At the end of the opera, after he stabbed himself in the gut, he delivered his next line in a strained falsetto voice that almost made me want to laugh; fortunately, he didn't keep it up. Still, compare the way that Natalie Dessay could sing a whole aria while cutting her arms with a sword, and color her voice to suggest the pain of that, yet avoid overdoing it the way that Filianoti did with his falsetto moment.

I did think it was touching, at the end, when Edgardo took off his signet ring and placed it on Lucia's finger before dying beside her. Even if it was a little implausible that the dead Lucia would be such a vision of purity and loveliness, considering the way that she had mutilated herself with that sword.

I liked the bass Oren Gradus as Raimondo, who seemed to be the most sensitive of the male singers.

The Financial Times review described the Enrico/Lucia dynamic as weirdly incestuous, and I think it's because the opera and the performers conveyed something about the way that abusers work. I don't remember any overt sexuality between the brother and sister (except when Lucia goes mad and mistakes Enrico for Edgardo) but the way that Enrico lies to Lucia, bullies and demoralizes her, and then claims that he is the only person who really cares for her, is exactly the way that an abusive husband would treat his wife. It was nice to see this kind of psychological acuteness from a 170-year-old opera.

We also laughed at Enrico's hypocrisy when he leads a weeping Lucia to her wedding ceremony and explains "She is crying for her dead mother." Not a laugh of mirth, of course--more akin to hissing the villain in an old melodrama--which is what Lucia is, I guess.

Thoughts on the opera itself:

Going in, I knew the plot of Lucia di Lammermoor, could hum the Mad Scene and "Verrano a te sull'aure", had heard the Sextet a few times, but couldn't remember ever listening to the opera as a whole. Hearing it, I was surprised at how jaunty many of Donizetti's tunes sound, despite the tragic subject matter. Apart from the mad scene, I think my favorite musical passage was the bit right before Lucia signs the marriage contract--the music wonderfully builds up the tension. The Sextet that follows is justly famous, of course.

I had thought about the kinship of Lucia di Lammermoor to Macbeth (Scottish tragedy, woman kills man under cover of night, gets all bloody, loses her mind), but seeing it, it actually reminds me of Wuthering Heights. The thing that scares me the most about Wuthering Heights, whenever I read it, is how isolated the characters are, on that lonely moor--how insular their world is, and how nothing around them can check their passions. The female characters are trapped and their doomed love affairs feel foreordained. The same goes for Lucia.

My mother noticed another connection, to La traviata: she thought the scene where Raimondo urges Lucia to make a sacrifice, do her duty, "and God will reward you in heaven," is just like the Traviata scene where Germont uses similar logic to convince Violetta to give up Alfredo.

But this also got me thinking about the role of religion in Lucia di Lammermoor...I don't quite know what to make of it. Religion (Raimondo's misguided advice, the "Christian virtue" of self-sacrifice) is partly to blame for the tragedy that occurs. And the opera also raises the perennial question of how a benevolent God could allow such a terrible fate to happen to an innocent young woman. Yet Lucia and Edgardo are both convinced of God's goodness till the end, singing that they will reunite in Heaven. I feel like a 19th-century audience would find bittersweet and romantic the idea that Lucia and Edgardo are united in the afterlife--but a 21st-century agnostic such as myself can read it as just another tragic delusion. After all, when Lucia sings about heaven, she is deep in the throes of her madness.

'Cause I'm a musical-theater geek at heart: The scene where Lucia and Edgardo secretly exchange wedding vows = "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story.

I spoof because I love: There needs to be a parody version of Lucia di Lammermoor where Lucia sings her cadenza accompanied by bagpipes!

And to finish up, here is a very recent interview with Natalie Dessay by Norman Lebrecht. It paints her as slightly nuts, but in a good way--thinking seriously about her art form and arriving at unorthodox answers. She says that she does not like playing the same role too often and just turned down an offer to play Lucia in London. Hmm...since I was at the last of the San Francisco shows, I wonder if that will be her last performance ever of Lucia?

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera


Tony said...

Dear Marissa
I was surprised to see that your urbane and literate blog has not yet attracted many comments. Anyway, here is one and I have sent another one to your post about the Gendarmes Duet.
All good wishes.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Thank you for the compliments, Tony, and come back soon! I enjoyed your website too--any blog that has categories for "hats," "francophilia," and "parodies/spoofs" is all right by me...