Lyric Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor: Superlative Voices Reign Supreme

lucia0001+ You can hear it in films – not just in The Great Caruso (1951), but also in The Departed (2006), Man on the Moon (1999), two Mickey Rooney  movies, Captain January (1936),Little Women (1933), Scarface (1932) , with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers (1930), and even in the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979).

+ It was used in episodes of “The Ren and Stimpy Shaw”, “Law and Order”, and “Tales of the City”.

+ You can play Grand Theft Auto 3 to it.

+ E.M.  Forester and Gustave Flaubert set parts of their novels at performances of it.

+ Walt Whitman wrote a poem “Proud Music of the Sea-Strom” (1869) after hearing it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“It” is Lucia Di Lammermoor (1835), the magnificent bel canto opera by Gaetano Donizetti.

Donizetti’s  opera, one of the first ever performed in Chicago, opened in 1853 at John B. Rice’s new brick theater at the corner of Randolph and Dearborn. Later, the great Adelina Patti blew the roof off of McVicker’s theater at 25 West Madison when she played Lucia in 1884. Nevertheless, the critics decided that acting was not Ms. Patti’s forte; regardless of the role, she was always Adelina Patti.

The legendary Enrico Caruso made his Chicago debut as Edgardo in Lucia. Oscar Hammerstein’s Metropolitan Opera Company’s 1905 production at the Auditorium Theater impressed music critic W.L. Hubbard:

Enrico Caruso displayed “the loveliest voice heard in this country since Campanini was in his prime”

Dressed all in black, except for white collar and cuffs, Caruso sang to cause the audience, who customarily left after Lucia’s Mad Scene, to remain for the opera’s conclusion, just to hear more Caruso.

After the final curtain call, at the invitation only after-party, Caruso, a notorious ladies-man, openly flirted with Orson Welles’ mother Beatrice. The great filmmaker loved to tell this favorite family story.

On the other hand, Chicago Tribune critic Glenn Dillard Gunn preferred the Edgardo of the Spanish tenor Florencio Constantino in a 1910 production of Lucia with the Russian soprano Lydia Lipkowska in the title role. He found that Constantino possessed the “vocal refinement that Caruso lacks”. At the same time he found the opera “a faded work of another generation.” Other critics enjoyed Ms. Lipkowska for “injecting acting values in her work, typical of Russian singers.” One even found Constantino “immensely proud of his own muscular development.”

Amelita Galli-Curci was Chicago critic Edward Moore’s favorite Lucia in the years between the world wars.  She “tipped the House over” because, he suggested, the soprano identified with the role. Donizetti’s opera was “always a best seller when she sings it.” Her performance usually drew at least twenty curtain calls following her Mad Scene which the audience often demanded she repeat for them.

In 1954 the Lyric Opera presented Maria Meneghini-Callas as Lucia. According to the great Claudia Cassidy, Ms. Callas “came, sang, and conquered…The cream in her voice for the first time reminded me of Muzio, but the gleaming brilliance of the ‘Mad Scene’ reminded me of no one but Callas, who is unique.” The Chicago Daily News reported that “Callas sang as she – or anybody else – may never have sung before and may never sing again.” She returned for twenty-two curtain calls during an ovation which lasted seventeen minutes.

In 1961 Lyric presented a Lucia directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli himself and starring the great Australian Joan Sutherland. Claudia Cassidy found that her “singing was cold, remote and dull until she reached the mad scene, and while once there she had the trill, the range and the fioratura, she created not a ripple of excitement…. far from anything approaching a great Lucia.”

The Lyric Opera now presents a Lucia which premiered at Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. America first enjoyed this version in 2008 at the San Francisco Opera. Based on a concept of Graham Vick, director of Birmingham England’s opera company, and designed by the Welshman Paul Brown, the production has been re-directed for Chicago by Vick’s Venetian assistant. The Lyric production lists Elena Cicorella as the revival production designer, Marina Bianchi as Associate Director, and Daniel Ellis as assistant director. The production now playing is a collaborative effort.

The stage is dominated by set designer Brown’s moving walls, painted to resemble a blurry, gray, gloomy Van Gogh-esque Starry Scottish sky. The walls telescope into small or large rectangular openings, as needed, but it is the lighted moon, one-quarter the size of the stage, that dominates the action. Nevertheless, it is the stage floor which commands the gorgeous center of Brown’s design. (Unfortunately the floor is invisible to the audience sitting on the floor level; only those enjoying seats in the dress circle and above may appreciate the full visual opulence of the production.)

Through scenery, costumes, and Chris Maravich’s dramatic lighting, Mr. Brown seeks to connect the character of Lucia with the moon and its light which waxes and wanes to dominate the stage. As the ill-fated lovers exchange their secret vows by the moonlight, the audience cannot escape Shakespeare’s words for Juliet as a premonition not to ” swear by the moon, the inconstant moon”.

This Lucia eschews traditional notions of stage balance in stage compositions, keeps stage movement and pantomimic dramatization, with the exception of sword play more dance than combat, to an absolute minimum. Stage properties are few – shawls, bloody bed sheet, flowers, letters, swords – and employed more for their symbolic significance than for their literal uses.

Maestro Enrique Mazzola immediately takes strong control with the haunting Prelude which begins the tragedy. The thrilled audience greeted his return after intermission with shouts of, “Bravo, Maestro!”

The singing is uniformly excellent, especially the Lyric chorus, again led by Chorus Master Michael Black. Conductor Enrique Mazzola gives the score a majestic dynamic interpretation. The famous sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento, Chi tronco dell’ire il corso” is a clear highlight of the evening.

Matthew Di Bacttista (Normanno), Quinn Kelsey (Lord Ashton), Adrien Sampetrean (Raimondo), Lindsay Metzger (Alisa), and Jonathan Johnson (Lord Arturo) do far more than support the magnificently-voiced star-crossed, or in this case, “moon-crossed” lovers, Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) and Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia). This duo  may well be the Lucia and Edgardo of our generation.

While Mr. Beczala gives an impassioned Edgardo full scope, Ms. Shagimuratova employs the advice of Chicago’s acting sage, David Mamet: “say the words as simply as possible, in an attempt to accomplish a goal like that delineated by the author.”[i] Her performance is pure, devoid of any irrelevant or extraneous emoting, indicating, or embellished drama in her voice. All of her emotion comes directly from her adherence to Donizetti’s score. The infamous Mad Scene is simply thrilling as the beautifully executed flute obbligato (Marie Tachouet) merges with Lucia’s voice, just as the lovers had hoped to do physically. Ms. Shagimuratova’s descent into madness is as moving as it is imaginatively thought-out. She shockingly ends the famous set piece sitting on the edge of the Civic Opera House stage, lost, frightened, and alone.

Mr. Beczala knocks the great final aria “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” out of the park to thunderous applause.

If you have only heard Lucia Di Lammermoor in an amplified or recorded mode, you owe yourself the thrill of hearing the famous music unfiltered as it cascades through the proscenium arch of the Civic Opera House stage. The Lyric Opera’s production is an event you will not soon forget.

[i] David Mamet. True and false. Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

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