Friday, April 18, 2008

The world of Lucia

I am attending Monday's premiere of La Fille du RĂ©giment and so skipped today's open house/dress rehearsal. So instead of impressions of the Dessay preview event, I offer this re-review of Lucia that I'd intended to post a month ago.

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Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" is not only one of the great outpourings of tune in western history -- to my ears, the greatest -- but an exemplary externalization of the romantic. The heroine's beset self and subjectivity break, but remain the visible and absolutely essential thing to both us and her story's other characters. (Compare to poor Wozzeck, drowned to little notice in his proto-modernist tale.)

Such an work invites -- even more than most, for as long-ago posted there are many true angles on opera -- two distinct ways of experiencing it: as song and as drama. The previous production's premiere gave us, via Ruth Ann Swenson and Ramon Vargas, an admirable version of the former. Mary Zimmerman's new production this season aimed squarely at the latter, and much of the negativity directed at it is a result.

Things begin, of course, with the cast. Natalie Dessay was once an immaculate voice as well as the consummate vocal and physical actress she is today, but surgery has taken off some of the sonic sheen. Meanwhile her voice has darkened and deepened from the stratospheric days, but she still lacks ideal force in the middle to make the first two acts' singing luxuriant. The third act's Mad Scene sits much better in her voice. but the high-note purity of old is absent...

This is not news, of course. Neither is her tenors' common -- as different as Giordani and Filianoti otherwise are -- impulse to sing in an all-out, hyper-intense style, nor the youthful baritone's similar choice. But the production itself comes down on this side, intentionally or not. Zimmerman was knocked for, among other things, not understanding the singers' details of the opera, and in a sense it's fair. Not only the theme but the method of her production was restraint -- the "clever scripted physicalizations of each passage", as I put it after opening night, really accumulated -- and though none of the business was particularly traumatic, neither singers nor audience were ever really free to slip into the familiar lines of bel canto enjoyment for which many hoped.

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Over the life of a production, of course, only the most physical contributions of the production team -- sets and costumes, mostly -- last. The actual direction tends to be followed less and less, so that anyone who prefers more traditional stage behavior need merely wait a bit. So it was last month: after months off, Zimmerman's Lucia came back with a new conductor, new tenor, and simplified stage business.

Despite Filianoti sounding perhaps not quite recovered after surgery and acute medical trouble, the March mini-run was a sonic success. And yet the drama had fallen off: even the Lucia-Edgardo interaction had been more charged when it was Dessay and the wooden Giordani. What was going on?

Part of it, I think, was Levine's absence. But at least as much was the shift in stage action. What seemed a detailed script for leads and chorus in the fall had, by this return, been relaxed almost to loose guideposts. It was a more straightforward and familiar evening, the Lucia one expects to see -- but with more intensely present principals. (And I suspect the San Francisco run with Dessay and Filianoti will be similar, though with the latter perhaps in stronger vocal form.) An ideal combination of sorts, admired much with the director's hand now less visible.

But Lucia's dramatic part -- even more than, say, that of Grimes (where what's with him -- the sea -- is much) -- depends on the vividness of the forces against her. She is delicate, they implacable -- in Cammarano's underrated adaptation of Scott, this is the romantic self/world conflict, and ratcheting it up heightens the pathos. In the world, she's ruined, but in the tale she nevertheless gets her say -- and even their homage.

Zimmerman's success was to find, in her Victorian re-setting, vivid and audience-graspable forms of the constricting strength of Lucia's world. Greatest in the enacted sextet (for which even complaining singers had real praise), her touches were valuably present also in the dreamy dance for Lucia and Edgardo's Act I-closing duet, the physical not-quite-comfortableness of the two otherwise, the contemptuous body language of the chorus through Edgardo's Act II appearance -- all among the things sanded down or elided for the spring performances, making Lucia's contrasting explosion of sensibility tell less strongly. The life-blood of a strong rejecting universe pumped strongly onstage in the fall, but it's a thing convention easily diluted.

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Embedded below is Dessay's appearance on Charlie Rose last fall. Unlike others, I found much of her actual interview segment more self-congratulatory than insightful, but the mad scene clips at the beginning (this is, in fact, the part noted in this post) and end must be seen. They are from opening night, and the availability of the entire mad scene video as a bonus to this CD suggests that the Met could issue the whole evening's performance. They should: neither Diana Damrau's chilly fluency nor Anna Netrebko's off-pitch narcissism next season are going to compare to this.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.