Review: Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights at San Francisco Opera, June 29, 2008

Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” is one of the great star turns in the operatic repertory, yet at the same time it is a quintessential ensemble opera, whose sextet is perhaps the most famous opportunity in all of opera for the lead soprano, tenor, baritone and bass to join voices in a single number (sharing the spotlights with two comprimario singers).

In San Francisco Opera’s 2008 mounting of the greatest bel canto opera, there was one of the more dramatic star turns in the company’s history – the debut season of French soprano Natalie Dessay, with estimable ensemble co-stars Giuseppe Filianoti (Edgardo) and Gabriele Viviani (Enrico).  It was Filianoti’s San Francisco Opera debut and Viviani’s American opera debut.  Additionally, Oren Gradus, becoming a familiar face in the Bay Area with three important S. F. roles  in just over a year, was an imposing Raimondo, with much to do since none of the traditional cuts in his role were observed.

The casting of the smaller roles was meritorious. First Year Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack presented a beautifully sung (and elegantly costumed) Arturo. Former Adler Fellow Matthew O’Neill was in the role of Normanno (normally a character whose purpose seems mostly plot exposition, but, now who seems more sinister – accused of treachery by the community’s cleric, Raimondo, by means of the restoration of a traditional cut).  Cybele-Teresa Gouveneur was the Alisa.

[Below: Lucia (Natalie Dessay), wearing the blue Ashton Tartan, wanders in the Lammer Moor; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The production in which this stellar cast worked had its pros and cons.  It is the concept of Graham Vick, the artistic director at Britain’s Birmingham Opera Company, for the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy and directed in San Francisco by Vick’s assistant, Venetian Marco Gandini.

The detractors had some obvious talking points.  Like Vick’s production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” for San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2007 season, the “Lucia” was a puzzle box unit set.  Unlike “Tannhauser” where the “outdoors” and subterranean parts of Wagner’s story occurred inside the Wartburg Hall, the Lucia set is one that shifts periodically from indoors to outdoors, the shifts more often than not occurring when mid-stage walls and scrims open, close, or move in tandem vertically or horizontally.

The outside is represented by a floor we assume to be a Scottish bog or fen (the story does take place on Lammer Moor), with a ground cover of mosses, heathers and other vegetation that one might expect to be native to Scottish mires. Occasionally, we see one or the other of two leafless trees, surviving (if indeed they are alive) by co-existing with harsh elements.  The bog contains pools of water, in which the young and playful Lucia splashes.

2008 is the year in which the Los Angeles Opera has coaxed Hollywood film directors to the opera stage to create new productions of the three operas in Puccini’s “Trittico” (in productions we expect season after next in San Francisco). The Vick “Lucia” production seemed in many ways to be itself an homage to Hollywood director Tim Burton, with both of the lovers seeming always just on the verge of madness (excepting, of course, when Lucia passes the verge into her obligatory mad scene).  And to reinforce the sense of being in a Burton flick, a giant moon that reminds one of Burton’s animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” appears in several scenes.

[Below: Oren Gradus as Raimondo Bide-the-Bent; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Even so, there was much to admire in the production, even if one sees no reason for San Francisco Opera to consider a long-term relationship with it.  The costumes were imaginative and often quite attractive. Although one could take issue with the frequent use of the set opening and closings (sometimes reminding one of the old-fashioned cinematic sweeps used to move from one scene to another), one might concede that it helped pace the opera and easily accommodated the restoration of all of the traditional cuts.

For the production’s front scrim, we have the blue-patterned (mixed with blue violet and green) tartan that will be associated with the Ashtons. Some would argue that the association of specific tartan patterns and colors with particular families occurred centuries after the period suggested here, but the production’s images are meant to suggest “Scottishness” rather than giving us an accurate taste of what the kingdom was like under James VI.  With the added information that the Ravenswood tartan is predominantly red, we have all the textile-themed production clues we need.

Normanno has sounded an alarm.  The Ashton household  includes fully dressed guardsmen and soldiers alerted to arms and other household members in their bedclothes, aroused from slumber. One of the retinue has thought to bring a frying pan in the event the soldiers’ swords are overpowered.

With Enrico’s first aria Cruda, funesta smania, Viviani displays a fine, light baritone that is well suited to Donizetti’s bel canto roles. We immediately detect that our production will mix the literal with the surreal as, a few feet back from the footlights, scrims move into position so as to permit two dozen choristers to sing, while standing abreast in a single row, with only their heads and upper bodies visible to the audience. Meanwhile, downstage, Gradus’ Raimondo and Viviani’s Enrico argue about what conduct should be expected from Lucia.

Then a scrim moves, and we are with Lucia  and her companion Alisa outside on the moor.  Donizetti (and his librettist Cammarano) have Lucia introduce herself to us by telling us the story of a Ravenswood maiden’s ghost.  Dessay uses the spooky gestures that she might employ to entertain young Girl Scouts at the campfire of an overnight camping trip.  In fact, Dessay’s entire first scene is quite effectively played as a free-spirited young adolescent.

[Below: Edgardo (Giuseppe Filianoti) envelopes Lucia (Natalie Dessay) in the Ravenswood tartan blanket; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

We know from the first notes of Dessay’s Regnava nel silenzio (surely opera’s most beautiful ghost story) that we are in the presence of an extraordinary talent, hardly needing the certain confirmation of her lustrous cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi that the super-star accolades are deserved.

Lucia’s lover, Edgardo arrives, whose filial vows Filianoti recounts in an arresting Sulla tomba che rinserra.  The giant moon has been almost imperceptibly traveling across the sky, but is in position for both Lucia and Edgardo to be standing in front of it for their love duet.

Edgardo seductively drapes her in a Ravenswood red tartan blanket and they intone the sublime Veranno a te sull’aure, first apart, then together.

With Edgardo on business in France, economic and dynastic forces come into play, as the bankrupt Enrico Ashton seeks to marry Lucia off to the wealthy Bucklaws, engaging with Normanno in plots to deceive Lucia.  Dessay was quoted in the San Francisco press that the first scene in the second act, between Lucia and Enrico, she regards as the most difficult and challenging part of the opera for her.  (Despite the unpleasantness of the dramatic situation being portrayed, it is, of course, one of the most extraordinarily beautiful duets in all of opera.)

[Below: Gabriele Viviani as Enrico; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Vick’s stage direction does not make it particularly easy for his Lucia.  She begins the scene outside in front of the giant moon, while Enrico sits inside at his writing desk. When she reads the forged break-up letter she is told is from Edgardo, she collapses, beginning Soffriva nel pianto on the ground with her brother hovering over her.

San Francisco Opera has been restoring bits and pieces of Raimondo’s part over the decades, and, with every piece of it now performed, the cleric, who tends to come off as a rather equivocal character when the role is performed with the traditional cuts, does appear in the complete version, even if duped from time to time, to have always wished to be on the side of good.

[Below: Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack as Lord Arthur Bucklaw; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The table that served as Enrico’s desk at stage right is moved to stage center and the walls to the outside disappear.  We are to have an outside wedding.  Arturo Bucklaw arrives with a coterie of elegantly dressed footmen who carry a chest, a horn and an hourglass.  The Bucklaws seem able to anticipate fashions of later times, and this Arturo might well have delighted the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”.

When Edgardo arrives, we find Filianoti is in great voice for the sextet and Edgardo’s unwelcome appearance.  The swordplay between Edgardo and the Ashton-Bucklaw alliance called for in the libretto is oddly choreographed in this production; one notes that in uncut versions of “Lucia” such as this, there is quite a bit of  time for fury to build.

The single intermission in the San Francisco production occurs after the wedding scene.  Conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce (American debut season) neglected to request the Orchestra to stand before the final act begins, as is customary in this house.

The Vick production provides a rather ingenious way – without building a wholly new set – of restoring the Wolf’s Crag scene, in which Enrico, outraged by Edgardo’s disruption of the wedding, demands satisfaction in a duel the next morning.  This scene, in addition to incorporating one of Donizetti’s stirring duets for men, provides the reason for Edgardo to appear at the Ravenswood cemetery for the final scene.

Vick’s unit set provides a space for the obviously highly stressed Edgardo to crouch in the dark.  British Lighting Designer Nick Chelton heightens the madness of the situation by having Edgardo’s eery shadow loom above him. Enrico’s challenge is made from the outside of Edgardo’s castle, with one of the leafless trees behind him. At the scene’s end doors open at stage left and right and above each door are walls with nine square windows, each with choristers throwing rose petals.

[Below: a moonstruck Lucia (Natalie Dessay) displays the bloody hands that murdered her bridegroom, Arturo; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

On the back wall we notice that there is a small four-sided opening, lit brightly from behind.  Each of the four sides begins to pull away from the others. As the wall disappears, we see that the bright light is the moon, with Lucia standing in front of it.

Then in one of the triumphant innovations of this production, we hear the unearthly sounds of the original instrument Donizetti designated to accompany Lucia in her mad scene – the glass harmonica.  Invented by Benjamin Franklin, with pieces composed for it by both Mozart and Beethoven, writing a glass harmonica into an Italian operatic performance was an exotic idea for Lucia’s mad scene.

In fact, the idea was so exotic that almost immediately the famous flute passages in the mad scene were substituted and the idea of the glass harmonica banished to footnotes in scholarly essays. Whether there is a new 21st century career emerging for glass harmonica specialists for “Lucia” cannot be guessed at this point.  Surely, only companies with the breadth of resources of San Francisco Opera could consider making this the standard for such performances.  But the sound is so ethereal and its evocation of madness so convincing that I for one will advocate for its wider use.

However, lest the audience doubt that Dessay was determined to portray Lucia as truly insane, at one point, to the audience’s astonishment, she let out a blood-curdling scream.  Dagger in her outstretched hand, Dessay does a 360 degree turn, as her hoop petticoat twirls. At another point, as the glass harmonica plays, she is prostrate on her back, singing Lucia’s cadenzas.

At the mid-point of the mad scene, here augmented, of course, by the restoration of other cuts, instead of the enthusiastic applause one expects at this break, the audience is absolutely silent, stunned by what they have witnessed. Shaking, Lucia mistakes Enrico for Edgardo.

Other Lucias have matched Dessay’s coloratura accomplishments, but the combined effect of Dessay’s performance, both vocally and histrionically, the glass harmonica, the Chelton-lit giant moon, and Vick’s mysterious staging is an experience unmatched by past memories.

Next Raimondo chastizes Normanno for his actions leading to the horrendous events.  But neither Donizetti nor Vick wish us to relax.  Edgardo, alone on the heather with a dramatic sky of blue and black clouds, intones his desparate thoughts.  When all is made clear to him and Lucia’s body is carried into the graveyard he returns his ring to the finger of her corpse and takes his own life.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of my first “Lucia”, which was to be the San Francisco Opera debut of Maria Callas, but, for reasons chronicled elsewhere on this website, became Leyla Gencer’s first foray into Donizetti and the bel canto repertory.  It is my custom to make some observations of the succeeding five decades of the performance history of an opera whose 50th anniversary of my first performance I have observed.

Besides the no-show Callas (and before her, the almost three decades that Lily Pons owned the role of Lucia in San Francisco), there were arguably two other divas before Dessay that held claim to superstar status at the San Francisco Opera.  In 1961, Dame Joan Sutherland was scheduled to open the season.  Illness required Anna Moffo to replace her for the opening night performance, although Sutherland did perform twice in San Francisco and took part in the tour of Los Angeles and San Diego.

In 1972, Beverly Sills performed Lucia, with an Edgardo who had sung the role four years previously – Luciano Pavarotti. The Sills-Pavarotti “Lucia” was arguably her best performance in San Francisco (and Pavarotti never failed to deliver when on the San Francisco stage).

The other major Lucia performances in the past half century included an Italian (Margherita Rinaldi (1968), for whom I have the highest of admiration) and three gifted, highly enjoyable Americans, Ashley Putnam (1981), Gianna Rolandi (1986) and Ruth Ann Swenson (1994 and 1999).

Forty years ago this season, Pavarotti sang Edgardo, his first bel canto role in San Francisco, and he would perform Donizetti in 1969 (Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore”), 1972 (Edgardo with Sills) and 1973 (Fernando in “La Favorita”).  Other memorable Edgardos were Gianni Raimondi (1957) , Neil Shicoff (1981), Marcello Giordani (1994) and Ramon Vargas (1999). Perhaps the most important appearance as Enrico was Giuseppe Taddei, in his American debut in 1957.

The performance, even with the sometimes quixotic approach to staging it, was a superb event.  Dessay was impeccable, with an extraordinary coloratura.  Filianoti, although in this performance occasionally exhibiting a bit of vocal distress, proved himself a Donizetti tenor of substantial skill.  Viviani, Gradus, and their colleagues rounded out a first rank cast.

For articles on Maria Callas’ replacement as Lucia with Leyla Gencer in 1957, see:

Callas Fired, An Opera Changed – S. F. Opera’s “Aida” at the Fox, November 7, 1957

Young Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia” at L. A. Shrine – November 10, 1957

For a general discussion of the mid-20th century history of bel canto opera at San Francisco Opera, see: S. F. Opera “Bel Canto” in the Adler Years Part I (1954-1957)