Opera Vivente opens season with uneven "Lucy of Lammermoor"
In less than 24 hours over the weekend, I had two operatic experiences in Baltimore. Neither left me fully satisfied.
In the case of Baltimore Opera Theatre's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday night at the Hippodrome, a deficient orchestra caused considerable damage; there were some strong elements onstage, but not quite enough to outweigh the provincial ones.
On Sunday afternoon at Emmanuel Episcopal, Opera Vivente's "Lucy of Lammermoor" (Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" sung in English) had its assets, but was substantially hindered by a problematic tenor and a cramped, mostly static staging.
Both productions, though, offered an impressive soprano in the title role. Vivente's heroine, Michelle Seipel, demonstrated considerable vocal agility and style on Sunday. She added interesting embellishments in her Act 1 aria and negotiated the famous mad scene with apparent fearlessness. A little more tonal warmth and a little less vibrato would have been welcome, but this was still an admirable effort that met the bel canto challenges quite handsomely. Likewise, a little more dramatic nuance would have been welcome, but Seipel created a substantive portrayal nonetheless.
Frederic Rey was
John Brandon, as Henry Ashton, sounded a bit dry at times, but, at his best, produced abundant heft and color. Christopher Austin, as Raymond, did generally solid work. Jennifer Blades was as reliable and stylish as ever in the small role of Alice. Yoni Rose revealed promise as Norman. Peter Drackley sang efficiently as Arthur, but needed much subtler acting skills. The chorus more or less got the job done. For the most part, the small orchestra held up firmly. The score (complete with the often, and understandably, cut Wolf Crag's scene) was conducted by Jed Gaylin with a good balance of propulsion and rhythmic elasticity.
Vivente founder/general director John Bowen often puts a vigorous new spin on an opera; unusual productions became something of a company trademark over the past dozen years. And when he takes an offbeat path, the results can be engaging. Here, he took a traditional route. No updating or deconstruction of the plot, no strange moves or costumes -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But even a conventional approach needs a shot of involving theatrical fire.
Too often, singers just assumed the old-fashioned, stand-and-sing position for opera; the choristers, in particular, assembled in group formation, looking like they were waiting to have their picture taken. Some stuffy costumes and thick wigs didn't help matters. Neither did a set design (Thomas Bumblauskas) that reduced an already small stage to a narrowly focused area, draped by ragged cloths. This might have been an attempt to emphasize the frayed, confined world that lovely, unlucky Lucy is trapped in, but it just restricted, even stifled the action.
I've lost track of how many Vivente productions made use of the aisles in the hall. Here was an occasion when such extra space could have come in handy, but it wasn't used. In the mad scene, for example, it might have added greatly to the theatricality to have Lucy wander in through the audience, rather than enter from the rear of a crowded stage and maneuver her way to the front.
SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Gabe Dinsmoor)