The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2007-2008 with a new drop-dead gorgeous staging of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The production by Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld has updated the work to Victorian days (Sir Walter Scott set his novel The Bride of Lammermoor in 1707) and this period change suits the opera admirably. In these days when one is not quite sure where a director is going to set a beloved warhorse, it was reassuring to see that this Lucia is faithful to the spirit of the work. The bare trees, their branches looking ghostly against a stormy sky, really set the scene for the events that unfold in this well-known work.
The greatest accomplishment in this production is how Ms. Zimmerman has been able to take this often-told story and manage to infuse new ideas which end up working fabulously. Among the many great ideas found here are actual ghostly apparitions, and the most inventive staging I have ever seen -- via a wedding photographer -- of the famous sextet.
The sets are quite memorable, but stylistically a mixed bag. The first act is set in the kind of naturalistic woods that brings to mind the realism of the second scene of the first act of the MET's production of Tannhäuser. In this production, stark bare trees dominate the scene. The third act Wolf Craig's Castle scene on the other hand has a decidedly expressionistic look complete with stock theatrical lightning, and the kind of creepy staircase that Dwight Frye might have descended in Universal's 1931 Frankenstein. The last scene of the final act featured a theatrical looking graveyard, memorable lighting, and mourners carrying umbrellas who looked as if they stepped out of the last act of Our Town. Somehow, all of this works and the production team ought to be congratulated, although, they were received rather coldly by the opening night crowd. At least I did not hear any booing.
Without a doubt, he evening belonged to Natalie Dessay in the title role. I was quite impressed by her portrayal of this problematic character. Vocally, she certainly has the goods and she really knows how to deliver them: beautiful, exquisite pianissimos, accurate trills, and the ability to portray desperation, madness, passion, and confusion. The fact that she is also able to do all of this while delivering some of the most beautiful music ever written in the bel canto repertory is quite an accomplishment. Ms Dessay is without a doubt one of the best current interpreters of this role in any language (catch her recording of the French version of this work, Lucie di Lammermoor, with Roberto Alagna, on Virgin Records).
Her co-star at the MET is Marcello Giordani, a tenor who tends to warm up to a role as the evening wears on, and who ends up giving his best performances towards the end of the run of a production. Last year he sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and I thought that the latter performances of this production were vastly superior to opening night.
What can I say about baritone Mariusz Kwiecien that has not been said before? He is truly the real deal, and given his performance on Monday as Enrico, this young artist can surely become the baritone of our times -- if he isn't already! He is scheduled to tour North America in recital this season.
The rest of the cast which included Michaela Martens as Alisa, John Relyea as Raimondo, and Stephen Costello, making his MET debut as Arturo, all made a lasting impression with their musically intelligent characterizations.
Lucia is definitely not the opera that one thinks of when pondering the many talents of conductor James Levine. Well, maybe it should be! The maestro took on the obvious criticism that conducting bel canto is just an exercise in beating out tempi while trying to follow the singer's lead. On Monday he taught us all a thing or two about elegant phrasing, and he made Donizetti's familiar score live again. His conducting was all about precision, and this brought out the hidden gems of this work. It's almost as if Jimmy is saying to us: "No, you haven't heard it all before! Listen again! You'll be surprised at what the man wrote!"
Whatever you do, don't miss this production of Lucia di Lammermoor. It isn't often that this kind of high quality happens on an operatic stage, anywhere.