For a fully satisfying combination of classical music and contemporary theater, the current LA Opera production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” is not to be missed. I shamelessly like my opera grand with voices to die for, singers who can act, and productions that dazzle. That pretty much sums up this “Lucia,” but you would probably like a few more details, right?
Where to start? Donizetti’s mesmerizing, and justifiably familiar, bel canto score has been a star vehicle for sopranos such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, to list just two from the 20th century. Now, I am not lucky enough to have seen either of them in the role, but Albina Shagimuratova, who wowed them as Lucia at La Scala and is on her way to reprise the role at the Met, impresses as an excellent candidate for the pantheon. No shrinking violet is she; her Lucia is lusty and strong of voice and character, a woman driven to excess by her inescapable status as chattel. Written in 1835, but regarded by director Elkhanah Pulitzer (and judging from the program notes by Music Director James Conlon as well) from almost a feminist prospective, this Lucia is not an emotionally fragile heroine. It is a demanding role and she is every inch its equal. Thankfully, nowhere in the notes is Lucia given the diagnosis du jour, bipolar. Shagimuratova convinces us Lucia is a woman maddened by her shackles.
Stephen Powell as Lucia’s entitled (legally and emotionally) brother Enrico, is convincingly tyrannical and self-involved. He and tenor Saimir Pirgu, Lucia’s lover Edgardo, perform with all the power necessary to match Shagimuratova’s stage presence, not an easy task. And then there is bass James Creswell, Raimondo the priest, who speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Creswell is a familiar voice on the LA Opera stage but rarely has he played a role here that so fully showcases his talents.
“Lucia Di Lammermoor” is based on a story by Sir Walter Scott about a 17th-century Scottish woman, trapped in an arranged marriage, who stabbed her husband in a crazed fury. Director Pulitzer, however, has nominally set this production in 1885, moments before the American and British Suffragette movements. I say nominally only because costumes by Christine Crook give a nod to Victorian times. It is the setting that is truly arresting. Projections by Wendall K. Harrington are eerie and timeless suggestions of a graveyard, a forest, a tempest. In contrast is the contemporary use of light bars and saturated color by lighting designer Duane Schuler. Yes, I have seen Robert Wilson productions where this style was pioneered, but in my eyes Schuler’s effects are far more striking.
Can I find nothing to criticize? Well, give me a moment … yes, but it is a small point and one that may well be fixed by the next performance. In the opening graveyard chorus, the orchestra overwhelmed the chorus, a rare event with conductor James Conlon, in his usual style, who went on to support the singers for the remainder of the next two hours and 45 minutes.
In short, the LA Opera production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” is a production for our times and not one to be missed by anyone who enjoys a classic at its best, presented with thoroughly contemporary sensibilities.