It was attached to -- of all things! -- the famous sextet. The production is set in Victorian Scotland. So while the principals sing (inwardly, it seems) of their shock and stress at this big confrontation, a wedding photographer is neatly and obliviously arranging all of them but Edgardo into a tableaux memorializing the just-signed marriage contract.
At this point I began to think that Mary Zimmerman had made her first jarring misstep. For she had so far shown a defter hand than Flimm, avoiding his clunkier touches and finding more life within the limited framework (the Act I physical interplay between Lucia and Edgardo, for example, was perfect). But to make such a pointlessly stagy interpolation, and one, to all appearances, lazily ripped from Flimm's Fidelio!
But there was more at stake than just putting the principals through their onstage paces. Having sat them down before the camera (and this is still in the middle of the piece), the photographer decides that the image is not complete. He waves everyone else at the event over, and they clump around the wedding party, forming a confident, coherent mass on one side of the stage, with Edgardo alone on the other. The image is striking and moving: enacting Edgardo's own tragic position, it treats his part in the whole tragedy as something true and meaningful, not (as usual) simply a stock plot touch. His fatal romantic isolation contrasts strikingly with Lucia's fatal romantic suffocation -- here, she is in the picture, and faints at its taking (after the end of the piece) -- and the depiction clarifies the thematic relatedness of the whole story.
It also makes perfect sense. For the Victorian setting, while allowing perhaps a bit too much early luxuriating in familiar accoutrements, puts more life in the social scenes than shown by any production in recent memory. Here the chorus (and perhaps some of the credit is due new Met chorus master Donald Palumbo) doesn't just fumble around looking vaguely "period": it acts with a specificity and confidence only possible in a not-yet-forgotten milieu -- and one, of course, remembered for its confidence. Its natural, orderly, almost indifferent closing up of ranks against Edgardo in the sextet scene is as perfect as his stunned, disorderly staggering after his curse (and the lonely Victorian armchair which sits in for Wolf's Crag). Act 3's choral reaction shots are as convincing.
And not just the chorus: the period's social norms are a language (familiar to most of the audience) for all the cast to use. So Enrico's fear of social ruin is quite vivid in these terms, helped by the excellent, if somewhat shakily constructed, set of Act 2. His bullying of his dependent sister is similarly pinned down. But it is Lucia and Edgardo who are shown in clearest relief. Act 1's unmistakable sexual tension between these not-yet-consummated (in this production, anyway, as the setting would suggest) lovers sets up the evening's most piercing musical-theatric moment: as, to the glass harmonica's return, the mad scene suddenly slackens from fear and expectation to simple bliss, so goes the entire tension Natalie Dessay has carried in her body for the entire piece. "Al fin son tua, al fin sei mia," she sings with the night's most perfect breath as she lays down on the prompter's box -- at last I am yours, at last you are mine -- and it all dissolves into the present-tense bliss of complete sexual satiety, imagined into truth at last. Of course this is where the chorus interjects!
After that, what's left? She turns worse, sings faster. Imagines a baby. Is tranquilized by a doctor (the same actor who was the photographer?) and passes out again, this time for good (and to a storm of applause). Edgardo has his part left, of course, and he gets an excellent dark isolating frame for his double aria.
Then the one decision which seemed dicey, and probably -- coming at the end of the evening -- colored many reviews of the production: Lucia, as the fountain ghost had done in Lucia's Act 1 aria mentioning it, appears as a ghost (white clothes, white makeup) onstage and inspires Edgardo's suicide. The first (similarly decked-out) ghost, and its literal appearance and costuming, well fit -- and, I thought, helped -- the Victorian gothic aesthetic of the whole, but this was a bit much. (It prompted a production note in the program, which by the first rule of production notes...) Zimmerman had done so well (see above) in contrasting the two lovers' paths that joining them at that late hour seemed out of left field.
But perhaps this was a result of the performers' dynamic. With this lead couple Marcello Giordani -- no matter how much he adopts a hyper-intense vocal style that, on this night, veered rather too close to tuneless bawling -- is the straight man, the solid figure on whom Lucia fixes. His Edgardo, it seemed, probably enjoyed the intricacies and solid practical business of politics, his family oath and passion for Lucia being deviations -- if even more intense for that reason -- from his normal being. When Giuseppe Filianoti -- whose Edgardo will (probably) be as dark and passionate as Dessay's Lucia -- takes over the part, the piece will take on a much different shape.
About the singing I've less to add. As Arturo, debutant Stephen Costello didn't quite make the jaw-dropping impression Matthew Polenzani did last decade, but showed off a very promising voice with a quick vibrato a bit like (though not quite as distinctive as) Joseph Calleja's. The other men were good (though Giordani swerved between "quite good" and "bad") but not able to escape Dessay's orbit. And she, in fact, started out unpromisingly. "Regnava nel silenzio" showed a somewhat clotted tone, which continued through the rest of the act. Now I didn't expect Dessay, at this point in her vocal life, to be bouncing huge clear perfectly-focused notes off the ceiling all night like Ruth Ann Swenson, but even her trills in "Quando, rapito" were heavy and labored.
Was she conserving energy for the end? Who knows? Perhaps the whole evening would have gone on in that vein, if her -- and the audience's -- spirits had not been bouyed by her unscheduled slip-and-fall near the end of that cabaletta... which she worked perfectly and thrillingly into flow of the piece. Even when not at her sonic best, Dessay understands performance -- but more on that anon.
At any rate, she improved act by act until a stunning mad scene which showed that her focus, passagework, trill, and top -- if not what they were when she took the Met by storm -- are still solidly there. We shall see how it holds up to the intensity of her performance (and the more-than-physical drain it imposes) over the run's long course.
The chorus sang as well as acted terrifically. Orchestral soloists Deborah Hoffman (harp), Trudy Kane (flute), Nathan Hughes (oboe), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Jerry Grossman (cello), and Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica) were all good. James Levine, whose first Lucia this was, handled the rhythms and climaxes of the piece very well (the sound and coordination with the singers goes pretty much without saying). I did find it odd that he really played up the ironic indifference of the orchestra near the end of Act 2. But I've already forgotten exactly where, I'm afraid -- the perils of taking one's time over a review.
It was a great evening. Dessay's Lucia is an amazing creation, one thoroughly supported by this production. I suspect things will get even better as the run goes on. I'll be seeing it again tonight.
UPDATE (9/29): Corrected info on the ghost's sole appearance.