United States Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Massimo Zanetti (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 5.11.2011 (JLZ)
Lucia: Susanna Phillips
Edgardo: René Barbera
Enrico: Quinn Kelsey
Raimondo: Christian Van Horn
Arturo: Bernard Holcomb
Alisa: Cecelia Hall
Original Production: Nicolas Joël
Stage Director: Catherine Malfitano
Set Designer: Wilson Chin
Costume Designer: Terese Wadden
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Any opera production directed by the acclaimed soprano Catherine Malfitano holds promise, particularly Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor. Based on Walter Scott’s famous novel, the libretto’s focus is matched by the intensive bel canto style used to express the story’s passion, and in this production, the emotional interaction is especially strong.
Susanna Phillips gave an intense portrayal of Lucia in both her singing and acting, with a clear, vibrant tone and spot-on pitch. If some of the florid passages in her opening aria “Regnava nel silenzio” seemed rushed, the overall effect was convincing in portraying the tragic heroine. Thanks to Phillips’ phrasing, most in the audience must have heard the suspense Lucia felt – e.g., when she saw the ghost by the fountain – and other moments were also impressive. Her scene with Edgardo had the appropriate dramatic tension, which was all the more remarkable because the role was taken by René Barbera, the understudy, replacing the ailing Giuseppe Filianoti. Barbera had previously sung the first-act duet with Phillips at the 2012 Stars of Lyric Opera concert (earlier in the season at Millennium Park), and their interaction only developed further in tonight’s performance.
Barbera has a ringing sound – ideal for this role – which he used with conviction. Had he performed Edgardo more often, he might have adjusted the volume: sometimes he was louder than necessary, at others he was overshadowed by the orchestral accompaniment. That aside, Barbera’s performance was appealing, such as in the first-act duet with Lucia, “Veranno a te sull’aure,” and the Act II sextet. He was best in the third act, both in the duet with Enrico “Qui del pardre” and the final scene’s cavatina-cabaletta. All in all, the effort had a polish that made him seem naturally cast – perhaps surprising since he was originally cast as Arturo. Replacing him as Arturo was Ryan Opera Center member Bernard Holcomb, who gave a fine reading.
As Enrico, baritone Quinn Kelsey was also impressive, both musically and interpretively. Enrico’s first-act aria, “Cruda, funesta smania,” effectively set the tone with a beautiful sense of style. While Kelsey was understated at the opening of the sextet, his lines at the conclusion rang out nicely through the house. Likewise, Kelsey gave a fine reading of the duet with Edgardo in the Wolf’s Crag scene that opens the third act.
As Raimondo, Christian Van Horn showed consummate skill. Van Horn’s second-act aria (“Ah! Cedi, cedi”) was exceptional as he explained to Lucia the dilemma she faced. Overall, Van Horn has an impressive instrument with a rich, consistent tone throughout the range, but especially in very low passages, his resonance emphasized the text impressively. Likewise, his dramatic presence added to the sextet. As familiar as this opera is, it is rare to hear this role done with such style, facility and dramatic élan.
Updating the costumes to the early- to mid-nineteenth century did not make sense in terms of the libretto’s topical references. And some of the blocking seemed unnecessarily static. The chorus was often frozen in place, creating pleasant tableaux, but the lack of natural motion had a surreal quality. Later, in the mad scene, the guests were placed around the tower steps from which Phillips performed, as if they were an extension of the audience, rather than participating onstage.
Other staging elements seemed to have a Freudian touch, specifically the point where Lucia refers to Edgardo and kisses her brother Enrico, who crawls away, revolted. It was difficult to gauge the guests’ reaction here, which could have amplified a powerful moment. And the pacing of the mad scene seemed to stop the action rather than sustain the tension – as if the production were built around the famous soprano aria without considering other elements.
But these are quibbles compared to the persuasive whole. The Lyric’s chorus is as reliable as ever, and the orchestra is in generally good form, with Massimo Zanetti making his Lyric debut.
James L. Zychowicz