Hardly Ageless but Definitely Timeless, Nello Santi Conducts Lucia di Lammermoor in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Nello Santi (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 5.3.2019. (RP)

Lucia di Lammermoor (c) Toni Suter

Director – Damiano Michieletto
Production Assistant – Ulrich Senn
Sets – Paolo Fantino
Costumes – Carla Teti
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Chorus master – Janko Kastelic

Enrico – Roman Burdenko
Lucia – Venera Gimadieva
Edgardo – Ismael Jordi
Arturo – Omer Kobiljak
Raimondo – Wenwei Zhang
Alisa – Gemma Ní Bhriain
Normanno – Jamez McCorkle
Woman in White – Ginger Nicole Wagner

At the first glimpse of Nello Santi entering the orchestra pit, applause broke out and people rose to their feet. (It was the same when he was still appearing regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1990s.) Santi has had a long association with the Zurich Opera – he was first appointed its music director in 1958 – and is a beloved figure here. At 88 he walks slowly and requires assistance, but that matters little once he is on the podium.

It’s not just the audience that reveres and adores him but the players in the pit and the singers on stage as well. Santi is a link to the past, the heir to conductors such as Toscanini and Fürtwangler. Time has not diminished the immediacy that he brings to bear on an opera score: he intuitively creates cascading waves of emotion through phrasings, dynamics and the subtlest of rhythmic pulses. His ability to conjure up a roiling fortissimo remains one of the wonders of my opera-going experiences.

Damiano Michieletto’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor was first seen in the 2008/09 season, but I had somehow missed it. The action has been updated, but it is a mix of eras, with little to evoke the hills of Southern Scotland except the mists that roll off the stage at the beginning and end of the opera. The dominant feature is a glass and metal tower that lists to one side. Dirt is piled around it, perhaps to prop it up or to symbolize the precarious state of its beleaguered inhabitants. Otherwise, there is just a barren landscape, except when the stage is set for a cocktail party to celebrate the ill-fated Ashton/Ravenswood nuptials.

The tower functions well as a perch for the chorus in Act III to witness Lucia’s final descent into madness, providing some stunning visual scenes and telescoping their reactions to Lucia’s death and her brother’s egotistic, uncomprehending hardheartedness. Lucia’s leap off a gangplank-like projection is less effective, especially since the audience can see the mattress bounce when she lands. The stunt detracted from, rather than encapsulated, her tragic fate.

Except for the glittering gold dresses of some of the ladies, the predominant thematic colors are red and white. Michieletto introduces the spectral figure of a woman in white who meanders through the action. Her only role is to observe, although she occasionally strews rose petals about. In addition to the rose, red is there in the costumes and lighting. Lucia never appears blood-spattered; only a few splashes of the reddish wine stain her white wedding dress at the end of Act II. The most brilliant scene is undoubtedly the final act where the chorus is stacked on the stairs of the tower.

For the final two performances of the run, Venera Gimadieva has assumed the title role, one that she has sung previously in the house. In the first act, Gimadieva was young, girlish and carefree, her voice fresh and sparkling. By the time she was coerced into marrying Arturo, incomprehension and fear were evident on her face, and her voice took on a distinct metallic edge. The Mad Scene was a descent into desperation, with all the tricks of a coloratura soprano’s trade at Gimadieva’s command, including spot-on intonation in her dialogue with the flute.

Her rival suitors were cut from entirely different cloth. Edgardo was the dashing young tenor Ismael Jordi who, like Gimadieva, is no stranger to the production. Jordi sang with ardor, but his Edgardo was introspective by nature; real bravado was only displayed when he crashed Lucia and Arturo’s wedding festivities. Omer Kobiljak as Arturo came on like gangbusters, over-singing, his voice cracking at one point. He was only briefly on stage, but floated some soaring phrases and lovely high notes once he calmed down.

Roman Burdenko was electrifying as Enrico. HIs voice blazed in fury, with the thrust and cut to permit Santi free rein in the pit. Although hardly contrite at the end, his Enrico displayed an iota of humility that made his character a least a tad three-dimensional. Watching Wenwei Zhang evolve as a singer and artist over the past several years has been one of the pleasures of regularly returning to Zurich since I left in 2013. He is as commanding in body as he is in voice. The most duplicitous of Enrico’s entourage, Zhang’s Raimondo emerged as almost sympathetic, if not fully contrite, as he detailed Lucia’s descent into madness and her gruesome murder of Arturo.

Jamez McCorkle was another debonair tenor on stage. He has stage presence and a voice that merits notice. Gemma Ní Bhriain’s Alisa was a sympathetic figure who anchored the action. She has little to sing until the sextet, where her rich mezzo-soprano added to perhaps the subtlest performance of it I have ever heard. That was Santi’s doing, as he integrated it seamlessly into the drama. The men of the chorus have never sounded better. It was a night at the opera the likes of which I may never experience again.

Rick Perdian

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