Winspear Opera House, Dallas, Texas October 21, 23, 26, 29, November 6, 2011
Review by Dean M. Cassella, Ph.D.
“She seemed to hear through the mist the sound of the Scotch bagpipes re-echoing over the moors. . . She gave herself up to the flow of the melodies, and felt all her being vibrate as if the violin bows were being drawn over her nerves. Her eyes could hardly take in all the costumes, the scenery, the actors, the painted trees that shook whenever someone walked, and the velvet caps, cloaks, swords—all those imaginary things that vibrated in the music as in the atmosphere of another world.”
Thus Flaubert describes Emma Bovary’s experience of hearing Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a theater in Rouen. When Madame Bovary was first published in 1856, Donizetti’s greatest work was a mere twenty one years old. Today, it is an opera-house mainstay throughout the world, and a sine qua non of the coloratura soprano repertoire. Lucia is usually a sure bet with opera goers, and TDO’s current production is no exception. Friday night’s performance was marked by outstanding performances by all principals, and lush, vibrant conducting by Graeme Jenkins.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) stands as one of the “Big Three” of nineteenth-century Italian opera composers (the others being Rossini and Verdi). The work swells and swoons with beautiful melodies and rich orchestration that drives the plot to its tragic end. If you find yourself attracted to Verdi’s middle operas (Trovatore, Traviata and Rigoletto) you’ll love listening to Lucia. The story has all of the stereotypes of Italian Bel Canto opera: evil villains, obsessive, co-dependent love affairs, a maudlin juxtaposition of suicide and Christian piety, murder. . . the list goes on. This is all a good thing, especially when the music is as beautiful and satisfying as Donizetti’s is here.
Just as Tudor-era Englishmen had a fascination for stories about Italy, Italians were particularly fond of tales hailing from Britain (consider Donizetti’s trio on Elizabeth I). The story of Lucia concerns life of a noble court in Scotland around 1700, and is based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Lucia, the sister of Enrico Ashton, of Lammermoor, is deceived into believing that the man she has pledged her love to, Edgardo of Ravenswood, is unfaithful to her. This Enrico does in order to bolster his family’s worldly ambitions by an arranged marriage to Lord Arturo Bucklaw. At the very moment Lucia signs the marriage contract, Edgar appears on the scene to disabuse her of her disillusionment. His rejection of Lucia proves to be just another step on the road to her losing her sanity, wherein she murders her groom on her wedding night, and appears to the members of the court, covered in blood and hallucinating. She subsequently dies in her sorry state. In the final scene, Edgardo kills himself in an attempt to be reunited with Lucia in heaven.
All of the principals in this production are making their TDO debut. Foremost among these is Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc, who does an outstanding job in the role of Lucia. Apart from brief appearances by her companion Alisa (well sung in this production by Charleston mezzo-soprano Cynthia Hanna), Lucia is the sole carrier of the feminine registers for the entire work. Mosuc’s voice is has a soft, hypnotic timbre whose apparent gentleness is deceptive, for it definitively cuts through the orchestra, seemingly without effort.
Lucia’s “mad scene,” in many respects the quintessential exemplar of the genre, was what made Joan Sutherland a superstar at the Metropolitan Opera back in the sixties. The scene is deftly handled by Mosuc, whose intimacy with the role is palpable, and her masterly vocal performance is beautifully matched by her acting. There’s nothing like a petite coloratura to further engender sympathy already established by a sweet, lyric voice.
The voice of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel (as Edgardo) has a lot of panache. His voice has a more piercing quality than that of Mosuc, perhaps a reversal of soprano/tenor stereotypes. He and Mosuc sing well together, but Hymel naturally comes into his own in the finale, wherein he kills himself.
San Marino Republic baritone Luca Grassi, who makes his US debut with this production, was in many ways a show stealer. His dark, brooding voice is a perfect match for the role of Enrico. Enrico’s is the first principal role to be heard in Act I, and Grassi convincingly sets the tone for the whole opera. I would love to hear him sing the lead in Don Giovanni. Keep your eyes and ears out for him in future American productions.
Tenor Scott Quinn, who hails from Marshall, Texas, and has been a mainstay at TDO for several years’ running (including two seasons as Young Artist in Residence), performs wonderfully in the role of Raimondo, a court chaplain. To my ear, he is a dramatic tenor. The boldness of his voice (he has no problem filling out the theater) is counterbalanced by a supple smoothness that is reminiscent of Mosuc’s. This makes him an ideal candidate to sing the role of the pastor. After this production, Mr. Quinn will set out to join the Houston Grand Opera Studio.
The sets were designed by the late Henry Bardon, who was commissioned to build them for TDO back in 1972. The central design consists of a group of large, dilapidated gothic pillars, which serve as the foundation for a variety of indoor and outdoor scenes. The story is very dark, and the sets effectively enhance the mood. Garnett Bruce’s stage direction seemed a bit flat, especially in the first two acts. This is all the more noticeable, given the uniformly high caliber of the signing.
On the whole, this is a very strong start for TDO’s 2011-2012 season. It may be a bit much for very young children, but teens will eat it up.
Next up: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, arguably the most influential work in the opera repertoire, and one not heard at TDO for almost two decades. I, for one, am excited!
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