Lucia Di Lammermoor: – A review of the MSO 2011/2012 Season Production

Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) with Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.

This opera is based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, written in 1819, but set in the reign of “Good Queen Anne,” in the early 18th century.

The tale involves a feud between the Ashtons and Ravenswoods.  Enrico wants his daughter Lucia to Marry Arturo, for political reasons.  However Normano, Enrico’s captain of the guard, informs him that Lucia is smitten with his sworn enemy Edgardo master of Ravenswood.  Raimondo, the Chaplain, advises caution against the arranged marriage.  Enrico remains furious.

In the second scene Lucia awaits Edgardo by a stream in the woods, where a Ravenswood stabbed his beloved in a jealous rage, and legend has it she remains there, and her ghost haunts the fountain.  Alisa, Lucia’s companion, tries to dissuade her from her liaison with Edgardo.  However the assignation takes place, and Lucia and Edgardo exchange rings and pledge a secret bond of fealty.   Edgardo leaves for France for political adventures.

In Act II several months later, Lucia’s letters to Edgardo have been intercepted by Normano and his operatives.  Worse he has forged a letter from Edgado purportedly showing Edgardo to have been unfaithful.  Lucia faints.  She is then reluctantly persuaded to marry Arturo, after the chaplain insists one of his letters to Edgardo got through but he has made no reply.  Plans for the wedding ensue.

In scene II Arturo is received.  He has heard of Lucia’s affection for Elgardo.  Enrico reassures him and berates Lucia.  As soon as she reluctantly signs the wedding contract Edgardo bursts in.  Believing Lucia still loves him he is shown the marriage contract.  Angrily he gives back his ring to Lucia and snatches hers.  As he offers his own life, Enrico orders him out.

In Act III,  Edgardo is brooding back at Ravenswood, when Enrico enters taunting him the Luci’a marriage to Arturo is at this very moment being consummated.  Edgardo challenges Enrico to a dual on his father’s grave next morning.

In scene II the wedding festivities are interrupted when the chaplain Raimundo enters white as a ghost to announce that Lucia has stabbed Arturo to death in their wedding chamber.  Raimundo had heard the screams and found Lucia covered in blood still holding the dagger.  Lucia enters and then follows one of the most famous mad scenes in all opera.  She eventually falls ill and exhausted to the ground, and the general consensus is that she will not survive the night.

In scene II Edgardo awaits Enrico at the tombs of his ancestors for the early morning dual.  He learns from Enrico of the nights events and that Lucia is close to death.  Soon the castle bell tolls announcing Lucia’s death.  Heart broken by the news, Edgardo takes his own life.

This is an Italian Bel Canto opera, a term which is hard to define.  It is translated as “Beautiful Singing.”  To me it means a style of signing light of foot, with agility and easy flourishes and coloratura.  There should be dominance of the head voice, and certainly no forceful pressing with the chest voice.  That is the best I can explain it.  Certainly in this production there was no lack of beautiful singing.

At the opening there is a dark scene with a weird caricature of a rocky landscape.  Normano the captain of the guard and his henchmen in their dreary brown garb looked like wayward souls from the order of mendicants lost on a poor recreation of a lunar landscape.  John Robert Lindsey came across as a weak and sorry individual where the role demands an authoritarian figure, eager to show his master he has his ear to the ground, and full command of operatives ready to carry out and even enjoy the evil schemes.  Now I know this is a supporting role.  However the old adage that “There are no small parts, only small actors” was demonstrated here.  This was a pity, as I felt this was the only role miscast, or may be he was badly directed.

Ben Wager, as Raimondo, had a good commanding bass voice and partnered well with the baritone voice of James Westman as Enrico.  The opera chorus sang beautifully as one would expect in “heart of choral country”.  However in the first chorus they were up close to this strange overbearing rocky scenery, and I thought the scenery was muffling their voices and causing poor projection.

I’m going to deal with this set now.  This should be Grand Opera.  There was nothing Grand about this set.  This opera is cast in East Lothian.  Now these are the flat rural lands of Scotland.  This staging went very close to the nasty stereotypical portrayal of Scots as savages.

In the meeting of Enrico and Lucia and the wedding scene there was not even a hint we were in a grand castle.  In fact the whole wedding party looked like a dejected tawdry lot.

However lets get on to better things.

When Susanna Phillips made her first entry as Lucia, she captivates us.  She immediately laid down to play in the snow, immediately convincing us we were encountering a young playful and innocent woman, a very nice touch that!

Susanna Phillips has just the right vocal equipment for this role.  She posses a lovely light coloratura, which she appears to use effortlessly and with great musicality and intelligence.  She never put a foot wrong.  She was superbly partnered by Michael Spyres as Edgardo.  With his smooth and easy on the ear tenor voice brought to the role exactly what was required.  Victoria Vargas as Alisa played her role with just the right degree of anxiety for Lucia.

The opera chorus of the MSO musically is of a high order.  I just love opera choruses.  Musically I was not disappointed, however they could benefit from more coaching in the acting department.  A lot more joy needed to be shown as they gathered for the wedding.  After all, one assumes they were not party to the evil schemes.  A.J. Glueckert by the way played the role of Arturo to perfection and we were graced with another beautiful tenor voice on stage.  Another demonstration that there are no minor roles.

Now to the pivotal mad scene.  The principles did no wrong and Susann Phillips rendition of it was superb.  This is where the chorus need some theatrical coaching.  They loped about like disinterested bystanders, whereas they should have acted shocked and then questioning and trying to find understanding in this young woman’s awful act and subsequent disintegration of her persona after being driven to madness by love denied.  There is so much more they could have done to enhance Susanna Phillip’s performance.

Now to orchestral matters.  As usual the musical standards of the players is very high.  We were indulged with a couple of fine solos of special mention a harp solo from Min J. Kim and flute solo from Michele Frisch.

One interesting issue, is the orchestral scoring of the mad scene.  The score includes a now rare and unusual instrument, that would not have been available to the MSO, nor for that matter a player.  The instrument is the glass harmonica or glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin.  You can hear it played here.  On the DVD I have from the Met, you can clearly hear that they have one in the third act mad scene, and it highlights the breaking up of Lucia’s mind.  This instrument developed from the glass harp, which is basically a series of wine glasses tuned with water on a sound board.  You can hear one playing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  I attended a long recital by a great exponent of this instrument many years ago.  He was able to conjure up a baroque string orchestra, complete with harpsichord from this single instrument.  He was able to give a surprisingly good rendition of the harpsichord by tapping the edge of the glasses with his finger nails.  It is really a mechanical synthesizer predating the the Moog by centuries.  In any event the Moog was not the first electronic synthesizer.  It was the Theramin right after the first world war, followed by the Ondes Martenot, in the 1920s.  You can see and play a Thermin at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St Louis Park.  Understandably you won’t hear a glass harmonica at the MSO, but you can on DVD.

However there are persisting problems of balance and failure to achieve the dynamic required for the big moments.  At times I felt the stage was leading the pit rather than the pit accompanying the the singers.  I don’t want to make too much of this, as for the most part the wonderful heroes of the pit supported the signers ably under the sensitive hands of Leonardo Vordoni.  I do want to address the issue of orchestral balance however.  As I have found on all but one occasion in this house, the strings are severely muted with a dominance to the wood wind group, which all to easily gives the impression of accompaniment by a wind band.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the room and in particular the pit.  The pit is deep and with some bare concrete surfaces.  Now in my many years recording for groups in ND and for public radio in that part of the world, I noted that concrete surfaces really enhance flutes in particular.  There were 30 string players in the pit, but they did not project.  They did better in the third act.  The sound really seems to have trouble getting out of that pit, with only the woodwinds projecting well.  The strings poorly and even the brass has a slightly dry quality and lacking body.  The bass barely makes egress from the pit.

I suspect the sound is very loud in the pit and everyone is concerned about covering the voices.  I can assure the musicians that with the caliber of singers engaged of late, this should not be their concern.  Projecting a well balanced sound from the pit into the auditorium needs to take priority right now.

Part of the problem is that modern woodwinds are about 10 db louder than older instruments.  To put this in lay parlance the newer instruments are twice as loud as older ones.  On the other hand strings in particular are unchanged.

I think it would be advisable to cover the concrete surface with a wood surface.  Absorptive surfaces in pits have been tried with uniformly poor results.  Another modification may well help, and that is to get the musicians higher on a platform of pine lathe construction.  This has been used in situations like this and shown to increase the 125 Hz to 500 Hz pass band by up to 10 db.  This is the warmth region and is just what this opera house needs.

I have to say I thought the balance problems were partially corrected in the third act, with the strings projecting better, but not optimally.  The violins are right up against the front of the pit.  Consideration should be given to repositioning.  Violins are monopole acoustic radiators, that is to say omnidirectional.  So the violins right up front are being turned into half space radiators and loosing a lot of their energy as a result.

The only opera I have attended where the pit balance was acceptable was Orfeo Ed Euridice.  The SPCO was in the pit conducted by Harry Bickett.  He is a veteran conductor with a huge experience.

Hopefully the new MSO artistic director, Michael Christie, can address these issues.  He should do lots of listening out in the hall and should be encouraged to pick up the phone and call Harry Bickett.  I have to believe Mr Bickett realized the problem and knew how to mitigate it.

Anyhow I digress, the performance musically was of a high order, at times I just closed my eyes to avoid the distraction of the stage.  The singing was just glorious, however they and the paying public deserve much better from the set designer and to some extent the stage director.  That set design was plain and simple a sloppy, lazy and thoughtless piece of work.  Much, much more is required from that quarter if the MSO is to prosper.

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