Sometimes you gotta take the good with the bad, and San Francisco Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” has plenty of both.
First the good news: the singing is pretty terrific and that’s what opera is all about. Especially the men: Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, sworn enemy to her scheming brother, Enrico (baritone Brian Mulligan, fresh off his bloody stint as “Sweeney Todd”). These two anchor the production with their strong, fine voices, never so much as in the seldom-performed “Wolf Glen” scene near the end, set suspended in the clouds on a checkerboard, driving home the fact that poor Lucia is simply a pawn in their power struggle.
Fine too was Nicolas Testé as Raimondo, Lucia’s tutor/advisor/priest, although his character was in dire need of a haircut. Faring less well was first-year Adler Fellow Chong Wang in the small part of Lucia’s arranged husband-to-be, Arturo. If I hadn’t already known she would stab him on their wedding night before going completely bonkers, I might have considered doing him in myself.
The title role was taken by Nadine Sierra, one of Opera News’ recent rising stars and a former Merola Opera Fellow. A bright soprano, she had the difficult bel canto passages of this role down pat. Alas — and this may be the director’s fault — she sang them mostly to the footlights, as did many of the other characters, giving an inert quality to the action (and I use that word advisedly). The only place it worked was in the Act II sextet (“Chi mi frena?”) where each character is voicing his or her own thoughts. And that was fabulous.
Sierra finally came alive in the famous Mad Scene, and, having been spurned by her lover, manipulated by her brother and forced into her bridal bed with a man she doesn’t even know, who could blame her? If the coloratura passages in that long scene are the jewels in the crown of bel canto, Sierra polished each gleaming facet to a high shine, with the expert aid of flutist Julie McKenzie. And she actually moved around the stage and addressed other characters and the chorus. The orchestra, under Nicola Luisotti, was in great shape, as was Ian Robertson’s chorus. High marks also to harpist Olga Ortenberg Rakitchenkov for her work in the first act.
Sierra was a last-minute replacement for super-diva Diana Damrau in this production. Nobody is saying why Damrau pulled out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the wrong-headed concept of director Michael Cavanagh, abetted by set designer Erhard Rom and costumer Mattie Ullrich. Cavanagh writes in the program that his setting is a “modern-mythic Scotland” in “a dystopian near future.” And if you can figure that sentence out, maybe you can go with the flow. But for this viewer, it looked like a mishmash of styles, ranging from ball gowns that wouldn’t be out of place in “Gone With the Wind” to tailored business suits. Not a tartan in sight and only two token kilts on male choristers give a hint that we are in Scotland. Leather-clad thugs with Uzis and flashlights mingle with wispy ghosts of betrayed brides of yesteryear, and Rom’s projections of rolling clouds and waves wash over it all, distracting the eye.
And, speaking of distractions, having those silly ghosts surround Edgardo while he is singing his farewell to the world, “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” — for my money the most gorgeous aria in this opera of gorgeous arias and wonderfully delivered by Beczala — was the most unkindest cut of all. I suppose if you wanted to sit with your eyes closed, it would have been a lovely “Lucia.” But then why not stay home and listen to the CD?