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November 16, 2011

Washington National Opera offers David Alden's startling version of 'Lucia'

Maybe it's just the contrast with a safe and predictable "La Traviata" the other day in Baltimore that makes the thoroughly unsafe and unpredictable "Lucia di Lammermoor" in DC so much fun.

OK, maybe fun isn't quite the right word -- not when you consider that poor little Lucia in Washington National Opera's production is seen cuddling the equally blood-splattered corpse of her short-lived husband, and that (SPOILER ALERT!) a gunshot-wounded Edgardo gets finished off by Enrico, who snaps the neck of his arch-enemy in the closing seconds.

No, Sam Peckinpah did not get his hands on "Lucia di Lammermoor." David Alden did, originally for English National Opera. His one heckuva powerful staging that has been reproduced here.

You can argue about all sorts of details in Alden's concept, or the black-and-white bleakness of the set (Charles Edwards) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel), conjuring the milieu of a decaying Victorian insane asylum. You can even dismiss the whole darn thing, as one disgruntled opera-goer was overheard doing the day I attended. But you sure won't walk away unmoved.

On balance, it's a remarkably brilliant attempt at cutting through coloratura veneer of this opera to remind everyone just how deep the tragic story is -- sibling betrayal, insanity, murder, suicide.

By updating the action to Donizetti's time, rather than the 16th-century setting of the Walter Scott novel that inspired the opera, Alden does not disturb the essence. The staging toys intriguingly with an inmates-running-the-asylum notion, which only intensifies what becomes here an almost Dickensian drama.

The production makes particularly effective allusions to ...

the bygone practice of putting on public shows involving mental patients. Even though you know early on that this will figure in the opera's famous mad scene, that scene still ends up being quite the shocker. Here, the onlookers get so much more of an eyeful than they ever bargained for.

The sight of Enrico playing with a doll in Act 2 before his confrontation with this sister provides a particularly unsettling image, echoing an earlier one of the girl-like Lucia and intensifying the overall off-kilter atmosphere.

Another recurring image is that of grim-faced portraits hung on walls, or get packed in boxes, or held, icon-like; the pictures help underline the family ties that bind and wound characters in the drama.

Alden's way of leaving performers in front of the scene-changing curtain is one more theatrically potent flourish.

Questionable touches include the sight of a hand (belonging to Lucia's maid, Alisa) emerging from behind a slowly opening door, in tacky, vintage-horror-movie fashion; and a retinue of thugs creeping into the Wolf's Crag scene to beat up Edgardo (the idea of Enrico entering that scene flask-in-hand, already drunk, is terrific).

In this visual and theatrical context, the use of an armonica for the mad scene, as Donizetti intended, is the crowning touch. (It is quite rare to hear this instrument in a "Lucia" performance, live or on recording.)

This Benjamin Franklin-perfected instrument of musical glasses produces a sound so eerie and ethereal that it can't help but reflect Lucia's fragile mental state. Heck, people used to think the instrument itself could trigger nervous disorders. (William Zeitler is the accomplished armonica player here.)

Two casts have been assembled for the run, which wraps up this weekend at the Kennedy Center.

The cast I heard, which performs again Friday, is headed by Sarah Coburn in the title role.  She's a riveting presence from the get-go.

A little more tonal color would be welcome, along with some more adventurous embellishments in her arias, but the soprano has a voice of admirable purity and security. And she knows how to burrow into the music incisively, a quality matched by exceptionally nuanced acting.

Saimir Pirgu makes an impressive Edgardo. The tenor favors a full-throttle volume, but the sound has body and resonance. And when he does file down the tone, the effect is striking. His singing in the final scene, especially the opening recitative, is superbly sculpted and shaded; his acting here, too, reaches an empathetic peak.

Michael Chioldi also delivers as Enrico. It has been quite a while since I've heard a baritone who can produce as rich a sound and so much vividly communicative phrasing into Enrico's Act 1 aria. Throughout, Chioldi uses his vocal and dramatic resources in rewarding fashion.

Mirco Palazzi sounds a little light as Raimondo, but he does some exceptionally affecting work in the narrative that leads into the mad scene. Corey Evan Rotz is a sturdy Arturo. Jeffrey Gwaltney shows considerable promise as Normanno. Sarah Mesko rounds out the cast ably as Alisa. The chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, does smoothly focused singing and handles the stylized acting with aplomb.

Philippe Auguin conducts the score with a keen appreciation for the curves of bel canto melody -- his approach to the Sextet is a particularly compelling case in point -- and draws dynamic playing from the orchestra.

With so much stimulus for ear and eye (Adam Silverman's lighting design is a key component of the latter), this "Lucia" will not be easy for forget.

Final performances are Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:42 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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