Oropesa, Boyd, Dubin, Casas, Candia, Stayton / Ching
As often as she may break down onstage, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is apparently indestructible. A few of the right elements and a performance hits home, whether on a grand world stage or in a regional performance where the chorus looks like some high school AV club (with a corresponding level of seriousness and menace), the tenor blows his most important high note, and the show cuts not only the Wolf's Crag scene but the Raimondo-Lucia scene while featuring some real "Huh!?" moments from the director.
These all, as you may guess, were part of Friday night's Opera New Jersey summer opener in Princeton. And yet it was a success, a real taste of opera's glory. What was needed? Just a fairly handsome and functional traditional physical production by set designer Carey Wong, costume designer Patricia Hibbert, et al.; a conductor (composer Michael Ching) who could hold the young ensemble together; and... a star, of course -- a soprano to seize one's attention on the unhappy title character's behalf.
This was Lisette Oropesa's first Lucia anywhere, and though I've heard her (including at the 2005 Met Council Finals) display a musical maturity far beyond her (now twenty-five) years I half-expected a work in progress with only intermittent flashes of whole success. But while I'm sure her account of the part will deepen, her performance this night was not only already a success but one identifiably her own. Her voice strengthened act by act, but Oropesa had no problem with the singing even from the start, showing an easy trill and confidence through the part's range. (Though she's obviously in the lighter line of Lucias, Oropesa's voice doesn't naturally sit super-high.) And her character snapped into focus as soon as Edgardo stepped onstage: between them he is the wild one, temperamental and touchy, with her dropping her own moody fancies to gently calm and cajole him on their love's behalf. The knife that kills her unwanted husband begins a long, long way from this young girl's hand.
It's even more unfortunate, then, that her scene with Raimondo is omitted. I've never seen this cut before, but whether it was for one of the performers or overall length or some other reason the decision was apparently made beforehand -- the program's plot synopsis does not include the chopped action. What's lost is not only a lovely bit of music but an essential point in the story's development: with Raimondo -- her priest and ally -- at last counseling her to give in and marry her brother's choice Lucia is alone against both earth and heaven, a siege she has not the heroism to resist.
She is nevertheless, of course, at last provoked to reject this married outcome in the most decisive way, and the subsequent mad scene is where Oropesa best shone. It was as coherent and moving an interpretation as I've heard anywhere, but perhaps more importantly utterly commanding throughout in person and character (though again in a gentler, less wild way than, say, Natalie Dessay's overpowering depiction of sexual un-repression). Lucia's dreams and desires, squashed over the previous acts, finally get their airing before her end, and they turn out in this case to be surprisingly wholesome. She plays the imagined wedding fairly straight (with the right touches of innocent joy), and it is heartbreaking when Edgardo's rejection eventually dawns on her. "Spargi d'amaro", the final part of the scene, is preceded by a chilling laugh (the final cracking of sanity), and the pyrotechnics -- capped on this night by a dead-on final high note -- well depict her conclusive dissolution.
Best of the remaining cast was baritone Eric Dubin as Lucia's brother Enrico: as in last month's Rape of Lucetia (where he played Junius), he sings well and characterizes his ambitious, less-than-virtuous role with some real zest. Also commendable were bass Rubin Casas, a late substitution as Raimondo, and Taylor Stayton, who despite some unsteadiness on top showed a promising tenor instrument and stage presence as Lucia's short-lived husband Arturo. Paul Nicosia as Normanno and Cathleen Candia as Alisa left on me little impression beyond youth.
It is hard to dislike Jonathan Boyd (singing Lucia's doomed lover Edgardo): he is so unreservedly ardent, and seems to inspire Oropesa to intensify her characterization. But his singing, though forceful, seems something of a mess, with not much bel canto style to channel and elaborate the ardor, and a high note technique that was iffy on the night. Act I went well, but the climactic curse at the end of Act II -- yes, the A and B-flat that undid Rolando Villazon -- was squawked out, and the climaxes of the last act's double-aria finale sounded effortful and a bit too falsettish (if still loud and full). Boyd did, as I said, catch the character, and thus contributed not a little to the success of the show, but it would be better if his vocalizing caught up.
Director John Hoomes lays on the show's traditional base some overtly "directorial" elements that don't much help. The beginning I thought designed to confuse: over the short orchestral introduction we see, in fuzzy light, a pair of young lovers eagerly meeting at the well -- and then the man stabs the woman. This is, of course, the backstory to Lucia's ghost tale (and we see a ghost dutifully projected onto the stage for various bits of Act I), but with the explanation coming a whole scene later, the relevance is long unclear. Given that the opera actually starts with the backstory of Edgardo meeting Lucia and the search for his identity, their past meeting would seem to make more sense.
But the real head-scratcher comes at the end: being, apparently, one of the few people who liked Mary Zimmerman's interjection of Lucia's ghost into Edgardo's closing suicide, Hoomes has Oropesa come out herself from the left (after he stabs himself, though) as, I guess, the ghost. Unfortunately, Hoomes also likes to show corpses (Arturo's bloody body is carted down the staircase before Lucia arrives) and by the time Oropesa comes out Lucia has already appeared on stage, dragged in on a bier on the right so Edgardo can address his final aria directly to her corpse. And not a covered corpse, either: he pulls the sheet off her head and shoulders to reveal a body double with the same reddish hair/wig and outfit. In other words, Lucia is on stage twice at the same time, looking exactly the same on both sides (and incidentally nothing at all like the projected ghost)... How did this not get edited out?
I have no idea if Oropesa could or will ever sing Lucia at the Met, but that seems more reason to see this show.