Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave is second of seven performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti’s adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano. The production was staged by Michael Cavanagh, and Nicola Luisotti conducted the SFO Orchestra. Extensive choral work was prepared by SFO Chorus Director Ian Robertson.
In many respects Lucia di Lammermoor is emblematic of the literal translation of “bel canto.” Beautiful singing takes precedence over all other production values, both dramatic and musical. In most bel canto operas solo arias take priority over everything else and dramatism tends to be confined to duets and the occasional trio. However, the pride of Lucia di Lammermoor takes place at the end of the second act when the surprise appearance of Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood (tenor Piotr Beczała) interrupts the marriage of Lucia (soprano Nadine Sierra) to Lord Arturo Bucklaw (tenor Chong Wang), a wedding planned by her manipulative brother, Lord Enrico Ashton (baritone Brian Mulligan), who had seized the Ravenswood estates through a family feud. Unknown to Enrico, Lucia has given her heart to Edgardo and dreads the oncoming marriage.
What happens next unfolds in the elaborate sextet “Chi raffre a il mio furore” (what restrains me from fury). It begins with concurrent soliloquies by Edgardo and Enrico, to which are added (after extended duet singing) a soliloquy by Lucia’s Calvinist tutor and chaplain, Raimondo Bidebent (bass Nicolas Testé) and Lucia turning to her handmaid Alisa (mezzo Zanda Švēde) in bewilderment. Alisa then tries to comfort Lucia while Arturo express the confusion that overwhelms him.
There is nothing new in this gradual accumulation of voices. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did it particularly well at the end of the second act of his K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, and Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was equally adept at the technique. Donizetti clearly learned much from both of them (which is evident in far more than this sextet scene). However, the idea of introducing the characters two at a time is definitely a departure from his predecessors, although it was probably motivated by a new approach to providing a platform for beautiful singing, rather than the need for a critical dramatic element, which both Mozart and Rossini seem to have valued.
Thus, Donizetti established a new feat in the name of beautiful singing by placing six of the opera’s seven characters in a single piece in which they are all singing their hearts out with full passion. The seventh character is Enrico’s retainer Normanno (tenor AJ Glueckert); and yesterday afternoon it looked as if his lips were moving while everyone else was singing. If ever there were a firm declaration that the voices matter more than anything else in this opera, it is this sextet; and, from that point of view, it is important to observe that every one of those voices was up to snuff and then some.
Most important among them all was Nadine Sierra, summoned upon the withdrawal of Diana Damrau from the production. Through her work with Cavanagh, Sierra established the fragility of Lucia’s personality from our very first encounter with her in the second scene of the first act. Ultimately, the entire opera follows Lucia’s descent that leads first to homicidal madness and then to her own death. While Sierra knew how to deliver all the climaxes with the necessary power, it was through her nuanced approach to the softer dynamics that she endowed Lucia with a personality worthy of attention. Equally significant was her command of intonation, particularly during her duet with Principal Flute Julie McKenzie during the Mad Scene, especially impressive since the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House are not the best when it involves a soprano on the stage and a flute in the orchestra pit listening to each.
In the context of Lucia’s personality, Beczała successfully portrayed Edgardo as the one anchor point for stability in her life. He was all that one could wish from a romantic tenor lead; but his character was one of substance, rather than style. This made for a particularly effective contrast against Mulligan’s dark portrayal of Enrico. It was also gratifying to enjoy Mulligan singing in a language other than English for a change and endowing his Italian with all the coloration appropriate to his character.
Among the other vocalists Testé made his SFO debut as Raimondo. The richness of Donizetti’s lines were not particularly consistent with Raimondo’s Calvinist character; but this is opera, after all. Testé did far more than adequate justice to Donizetti’s writing and then negotiated the narrative thread to the best of his abilities. Equally impressive were the two Adler fellows in the cast, Švēde and Wang, neither of whom contributed very much to the drama; however both gave solid accounts of their vocal parts. (Wang did not portray the corpse of Arturo slain by Lucia on their wedding night. That part was taken by supernumerary Charlie Martinez, whose Zen sense of stillness was positively chilling.) Glueckert’s Normanno was a bit overwhelmed by the chorus during the opening scene, but he gradually found the necessary strength for his delivery as the opera progressed.
All in all, the bel canto tradition of beautiful song could not have been better served.