Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teenagers of Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor -- Opera New Jersey, 7/10/09
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.

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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.

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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?

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I have no idea if Oropesa could or will ever sing Lucia at the Met, but that seems more reason to see this show.


  1. Clearly you don't understand that the ghost that appears ISN'T supposed to look like Lucia. It ISN'T Lucia. It's the ghost from the Regnava aria. (you know.... the girl that dies in that scene in the Overture that you said didn't make any sense.)

    Perhaps you were the only one that didn't understand it.

  2. Yes, the chorus is made up of 22 - 32 year olds (a bit old for the high school AV club, wouldn't you say?). As is the case with many opera companies, the chorus is comprised of participants in Opera New Jersey's summer young artist program. I'd hardly call that newsworthy.

  3. "It ISN'T Lucia."

    The ghost at the very end obviously is Lucia. She's played by Lucia, looks like Lucia, and has rather tender feelings for Edgardo.

    The ghost in Act I obviously isn't Lucia (for one thing she's played neither by Lucia or her body double). But she has a number of indicia of ghostliness (special effects etc.) that consistency suggests should appear on any future ghost as well. Ghost-Lucia has none of them (she basically just comes out in corpse makeup), causing needless confusion in the dual-Lucia moment at the end.

    "22 - 32 year olds (a bit old for the high school AV club, wouldn't you say?)"

    Yes, I would, which is why I noticed it. I've seen young artist and student productions before, and even enjoyed the new light the general youthening of the cast was shedding on the relationships. (Meant to mention this in the post, but unfortunately only the title reference remained.) But the very young body language was unintentionally and avoidably humorous: a menacing chorus should look menacing, not geeky.

  4. CLEARLY Lisette is Lisette (Lucia's ghost at the end). I wasn't arguing with you there.

    You indicated having a problem with the fact that Lisette nor her body double looked like the projection ghost. This suggests that you thought they were supposed to be the same person (all 3). However, I suppose the lack of clarity in your writing was trying to suggest that you wish only for consistent ghostly appearances. I didn't find it difficult to make the mental leap that ghosts might appear differently at different times, but if you did, then perhaps the director should have considered it... hmmm or not.

  5. I have to say that I agree with most of your comments, but when you said that Taylor Stayton had an "uneasy top" I lost total respect for your critics. The role of Arturo only goes to a high A and Taylor has sung high Ebs in public so a high A is not even his "top". Furthmore his high A was fantastic and the fact that he could sing that entire last line in one breath is to be commended.

    Also the final scene made perfect sense. Lucia is dead and after Edgardo stabs himself, he sees her ghost and they are now together in the afterlife. If you can't figure that out, then please never visit Europe where concepts require MUCH more interpretation than this one. Pretty straight-forward...

  6. I'll definitely give you one or two geeky-acting chorus men ... :) But certainly they can't all be tarred with that brush.

    As for the ghosts, I LOVED the Regnava ghost projection. It was bone-chilling! And I think that anyone who was at all familiar with Lucia di Lammermoor or at least the famous Regnava aria knew exactly what was going on with the unusual and unexpected murder which opened the show. I don't share you opinion about it being confusing. Even for people who didn't know the synopsis, I don't see how it could have really taken away from anyone's experience. Perhaps you aren't giving audiences enough credit. Many forms of popular entertainment these days use a little guesswork as a story device. You see this a lot in the film world. Besides, first-time opera-goers are always a little bit confused anyway. At least this time there's a cool projection to appease them. ;) I guess it would have been more consistent to have the Lucia ghost show up as a projection at the end too, but I think it was a nice touch to use Lisette herself, and to watch Edgardo pulling himself closer toward her and the afterlife as he sang his last notes. Besides, wouldn't you rather her come out for her curtain call in an angelic white gown rather than the nightgown drenched in Arturo's blood? ;)

    John Hoomes' direction was truly inspired, and the ensemble always had a crystal clear image of what he wanted. He reveled in the gore. We've all seen Lucias done the same way over and over; what a refreshing experience it was to mix it up a little.

    And I'll also chime in on the Taylor Stayton issue - that guy can pop out high C's in his sleep. It's a shame that your blog entry is now out there on the internet using a word like "unsteadiness" in association with his singing. I was at that performance too, as well as many others, and I find that particular comment to be completely unfounded - please be more careful with the impact of your words in the future. I thought your use of the phrase "promising tenor" was much more on the money.

  7. Just curious ... was this the unsteadiness you were referring to in regards to Mr. Stayton? I guess 9 perfectly-pitched high C's does leave cause for concern ... =)


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.