United States Festival O18  – Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera Philadelphia / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Opera Philadelphia, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 21.9.2018. (RP)
Lucia – Brenda Rae
Enrico – Troy Cook
Edgardo – Michael Spyres
Raimondo – Christian Van Horn
Arturo – Andrew Owens
Normanno – Adrian Kramer
Alisa – Hannah Ludwig
Direction & Costumes – Laurent Pelly
Sets – Chantal Thomas
Lighting – Duane Schuler
Wigs & Make-Up – David Zimmerman
Chorus Master – Elizabeth Braden
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is the only standard fare being served during Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18, unless you count a ‘re-imagining’ of Poulenc’s La Voix Humane with Patricia Racette. Few would.
There was a sense of occasion to this performance. Philadelphia’s Academy of Music has never looked so grand and glorious. The audience was excited to be there, anticipating something special, and they got it; thrilling singing and staging that is bound to generate some buzz.
It was the premiere of Laurent Pelly’s new production for Opera Philadelphia and the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna will have to wait until February 2019 to see it). The strength of Pelly’s concept is the deftly etched characterizations of the protagonists, none more fully realized than the Lucia of Brenda Rae. The downside is undoubtedly the virtual lack of any charm whatsoever, although there are some arresting and beautiful scenes.
Distressed over the loss of her mother and terrorized by her brother, Lucia first appeared as a school girl playing in the snow. However, there are dark undertones, her skittishness and twitching the physical manifestations of the psychological torment that she endures.
Rae’s Lucia bloomed briefly in the love duet with Edgardo, but withdrew into herself as she was bludgeoned into a marriage against her will by her brother and duped into believing that she had been betrayed by Edgardo. As a beautiful bride in a white dress with a wreath of flowers in her hair, her Lucia verged on total collapse as she sleepwalked through the marriage ceremony. In the Mad Scene, Rae bloomed both vocally and dramatically, but it was a horror to behold her stalking the stage in her blood-splattered dress.
Vocally Rae’s Lucia traversed the same route, her voice growing in volume, depth and color as the tragedy unfolded. Rae’s emotionally shattering rendition of Lucia was enhanced by the otherworldly sounds of the glass harmonica (invented by Benjamin Franklin, who made Philadelphia his home) which Donizetti called for in several of the opera’s crucial scenes. The sounds that floated into the hall during the Mad Scene, both human and instrumental, were stunning. Rae embraced the risks in the role, magnified by Pelly’s staging, and triumphed.
Currently the opera world is blessed with a handful of wonderful lyric tenors, and Michael Spyres is clearly to be numbered in their ranks. His voice is darker than many of them, perhaps due to his start as a baritone, but it is a thrilling sound and he cuts a dashing figure on stage — intense, passionate and impetuous. Pelly drove home that this is an opera without a hero: his Edgardo was as selfish and uncompromising in the demands that he made upon Lucia as her brother was. The difference, of course, is her reciprocated love for him.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was just announced as the winner of 2018 Richard Tucker Award. He has an elegant voice, clear, cavernous and commanding, and with his tall, lean frame cut an imposing figure as Raimondo. He was a man of the cloth, proudly wearing his clerical collar. With sexual harassment charges felling powerful men almost weekly, his unctuous manner and duplicity were all the more discomforting as he did Enrico’s bidding in breaking Lucia’s spirit and eking out her acquiesce to the marriage to Arturo.
Desperation merged with total self-absorption in Troy Cook’s Enrico, his firm baritone a bit light to make much impact in this cast. Self-interest was Andrew Owens’ calling card as Arturo, possessor of yet another fine lyric tenor voice. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig’s Alisa was less a confident to Lucia than her brother’s enabler. The six principals joined voices in the famous Sextet that stole upon me as I was so engrossed in the action.
Corrado Rovaris led a fast-paced yet subtle reading of Donizetti’s popular score, and the beloved melodies rolled out one after another. The orchestra’s playing was fleet and fine, while the chorus sang superbly, executing Pelly’s exacting staging with careful attention to detail and character. It’s no mean feat given the anonymity that Pelly imposed upon them by grouping the chorus in clumps and the difficulties of moving about on the steeply raked stage. (Spyres slipped at one point but managed to maintain his balance.)
There was not even a whiff of the romance of the Scottish Highlands in the production. The outdoor scenes played out on bleak snowy hills; the addition of the bare outlines of translucent walls transformed the mounds into the interior of Lammermoor Castle. The outline of another loomed in the distance. Intermittent snowfalls lent a cold wintry beauty to the staging, but it was bleak. A red wash lit up the sky as Lucia and Edgardo sang their love duet. In the Mad Scene the entire stage was red, with blood seeming to flow out of the castle doors.
The atmosphere was almost Ibsen-like in its rigidity with society bringing all of its power to crush the spirit of a young woman who went against her family’s dictates. All wore the stiff, dark, formal attire of the mid-nineteenth century. Disdain emanated from the chorus as they looked down upon the girl. When Lucia appeared in the Mad Scene, her dress blood-splattered and her shoulders bare, their conceits were shattered. In the end, the sacrificial victim to male prerogative was lifted up by the men who had sought to control her.
It is a challenging production with few visual charms, but faithful to the story. All attention was focused on the tragic heroine and, given Brenda Rae’s bravura performance as Lucia, few could have left disappointed.