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Posts Tagged ‘Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor’

My six or seven old readers might remember that I had first found  Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in the Deutsche Oper  dreadful and then old-fashioned. Today, I could even imagine that it could actually become interesting if a stage director could be found to make its seediness purposeful. The fact is that, in this worn-out production, Olga Peretyatko seemed somehow too brand-new. She has many and many ideas about Lucia and she diligently tried them out – in the Mad Scene, she cared to try sexiness, crudeness and even grotesque – but without the help of a director, coherence was not really there. The effort is nonetheless more than welcome. Moreover, she has physique de rôle for romantic heroines and moves gracefully (albeit in a very standardized way) on stage.

The musical side of her performance similarly shows a serious intent of making sense of everything, in the way an important singer should do. I am not only sure that, at this stage of her career, she has the “important” voice to put her ideas into practice. To start with, her soprano is a couple of sizes too small for Lucia; Donizetti’s orchestration can hardly be called “heavy”, but Peretyatko was often inaudible – not in her high register, it must be said, which is always clear, round and pleasant. She has very good trills, very smooth (but not athletic à la Sutherland) coloratura and beautiful staccato. Her in alts are a bit fragile, but very reliable, and her low notes are particularly solid for such light a voice. She understands the dramatic situations, but – having to operate at 100% most of the time – she does not really have leeway for tonal colouring “on the text” as true bel canto style demands. I had the impression that, in a lighter role, one could sample her artistry (and not merely her technique or loveliness) more properly.

The announcement of Joseph Calleja’s cancellation was received with booing – and his replacement by an ensemble singer was not really encouraging. I had seen Yosep Kang before as Tamino and Don Ottavio and had nothing to write home about both times. This evening, however, he really showed what he can do. Although the voice has no inbuilt charm in it, the Korean tenor has very easy high notes and can pierce through the orchestra, although his voice too is a bit on the light side for Edgardo. That very lightness, though, made his Edgardo  sound young and vulnerable, his very clear phrasing (sometimes a bit short on legato) and diction made everything he sang sound sincere and – even if the libretto does not give him much to work on – he could find the right note of melancholy, of helplessness in his role. One could almost see the suicidal element lurking on from the beginning. I have to confess that I found his hardly-for-the-ages but truly fresh performance the most interesting thing this evening.

I had seen Luca Salsi long ago at the Met as Sharpless and my impression then was of a spontaneous voice. Not this evening, I am afraid. His baritone lacked projection and his performance was a bit faceless. As always, nobody really gave the rest of the cast lots of thought – and one could hear that. Roberto Rizzi Brignoli could help his under-rehearsed cast out, but not his under-rehearsed orchestra. The opening scene was embarrassingly messy – and, even if things got a bit better afterwards, these musicians did not seem to be “into” this performance.

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I have previously called Filippo Sanjust’s arthritic production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor dreadful in my only experience with it and never thought I would really see it again, but then I had never seen Joseph Calleja live -  and Elena Mosuc in the title role seemed enticing enough. All I have to say is that, although the staging still seems to have been spirited away from a XIXth century provincial theater, hearing the Maltese tenor sing his last aria surrounded by cardboard sets lit by golden footlights seemed to take us back to the days of Donizetti himself.

Yes, Calleja’s voice has been called old-fashioned in a positive sense mainly because of its characteristic vibratello. But there is more to it – his is an exquisite yet very strange voice. The tone has a Björling-like plangency, probably suggested by its discretely nasal quality on the passaggio and its heady-toned quality. Differently from Björling, however, his high notes do not acquire that concentrated quality to make it flash through the auditorium. I don’t mean it is a small voice, it is rather big for a lyric tenor, but it is remarkable how his high register does not sound fully “settled” yet surprisingly easily produced. In other words, for an Italian tenor, his high notes lack squillo but rather acquire instead a smooth, reedy quality. It is only surprising that it works out so comfortably for him. For myself, I can say that, among all new tenors in the Italian repertoire, he is by far the most interesting so far. Although his phrasing is occasionally a bit too cupo, he sang with instrumental quality, unfailing good taste a good ear for tone colouring and idiomatic quality.

Elena Mosuc took some time to warm – her Regnava nel silenzio was uncomfortable, she lacked concentration in the confrontation with her brother, but seemed to gather her resources to produce an extremely musical, accurate and beautifully sung mad scene. It was hardly illuminating, intense or really touching, but beguilingly done in her bright-toned soprano clean of metallic quality and rich in breathtaking mezza voce effects and clean passagework. She find no trouble in producing in alts and never missed an opportunity.

South-African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa has a rich, dark voice and admirable stamina to hold high notes for ever, but bel canto apparently is not his repertoire. Instead of really dealing with Donizetti’s decorated lines, he seemed impatient to get through anything slightly embellished and go straight to the gutsiest passages. Katarina Bradic was a refreshingly young sounding Alisa. I would say that the part of Raimondo is far from comprimario and requires a more solid piece of casting. Among the basses in the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper, there are some who could take it in more acceptable a manner.

Guillermo García Calvo’s primary concern was to be there for his singers whenever they needed – and he never failed to do so this evening. Many would say that Donizetti requires nothing further – I beg to differ. Here in Berlin, none less than Herbert von Karajan proved that – and his soprano was only Maria Callas. It must be said that the edition here adopted follows the same cuts of last year performance’s.

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When I say that one should not even bother to stage Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor if one has not a brilliant soprano for the title role, I do not mean that everything else in a staging of that opera is irrelevant. For a long while, it has been considered a tenor vehicle, for example. The problem is that the whole dramatic and musical impact of this very particular work depends on how touching the main character appears to the eyes and ears of the audience. If you do not care about her, it is all about a very silly girl in a very high tessitura.  And you will only care about her, if she is not fighting with what she has to sing.

The cancellationfest still goes on in Berlin. Diana Damrau was supposed to be the Bride of the Lammermoor – and I confess I was not really excited about that. Although she is an excellent actress and an intelligent musician, her morbidezza-less soprano is entirely unfit for the Italian repertoire. My recollection of her Lucia at the Met was frankly disappointing in all accounts, but for her ease with runs and staccato effects. Therefore, the announcement of her replacement by Eglise Gutiérrez placed an extra interest in the performance. I had seen Gutiérrez back in 2005 as Lakmé in the Carnegie Hall, where she gave a lovely and technically adept performance. It makes me particularly sad to report that these five years have not been kind to her voice:  her vowels have become excessively covered, the tone lacks brightness overall, her mezza voce is breathy, her high register is a bit effortful and her in alts are quite fragile if mostly true in pitch. Her coloratura has also lost its agility and, if she gathered her resources to a minimally decent Mad Scene, many fioriture were given the rittardando treatment. This disfigured the music’s flow and made many passages void of pathos. Although she cuts a quite romantic figure on stage, her basic acting toolkit has no “mentally fragile virgin”-option.

The Lammermoor family seemed doomed to inaudibility this evening – baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, whom I have seen under a very positive light in the Staatsoper’s Macbeth last year, could not focus his voice and pierce through into the auditorium. Hyung-Wook Lee’s Raimondo seemed more interesting in size and tonal quality, but he would gradually loose steam to the point in which things went really badly in his last contributions. If you wondered what Alisa actually sings during the sextett, this was your Lucia – Katherine Tier’s mezzo was quite hearable throughout.

In these circumstances, although Roberto Alagna’s tenor now sounds quite juiceless, it most definitely sounds in the theatre, what had a very soothing effect in an audience who had to struggle to follow the other main soloist’s lines. His usual lachrymose interpretative style has become quite vulgar, but again it was a relief to hear one singer who had operating space to interpret at all.

Stefano Ranzani’s contribution to the performance as a conductor limited itself to the traffic cop activity. In his defence, one must always point out that he had to keep orchestra down during the whole performance and there was very little to hear from the pit. Since his soloists were quite free about note values, he had to concentrate on following them rather than on establishing a musical interpretation. The edition here adopted was also heavily cut – no Lucia/Raimondo scene, no Enrico/Edgardo scene, not to mention internal trimming to make Lucia’s part easier.

When it comes to the unearthing of Filippo Sanjust’s old production, I was tempted to use the word “amateurish”, but  Etymology shows us that it comes from the word “love” – and whoever is responsible for that dreadful staging has no love for his or her work.

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I am something of a veteran in what regards Mary Zimmerman’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the Met. I have seen every cast featured in the opera with the exception of the most controversial one (unlucky me) – that of this year’s revival with Anna Netrebko and her three tenors. Fortunately, there are things that only the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series can do for you, even if my experience was far from live.

First of all, it is quite peculiar to watch the opera at a movie theatre. It is darker than in the opera house, the sound is louder (so you don’t feel like killing your neighbour when he or she starts to fidget with his or her personal belongings or coughing his or her lungs out), you have that funny camera angle as if you were hanging from the edge of the stage (I am not sure I really like that), everybody seems to have a HUGE voice and the orchestra is so powerful as if the Berliner Philharmoniker were playing in your bathroom. There is also the intermission, with Natalie Dessay apparently on drugs manically asking around questions that she herself was ready to answer.

Actually the funniest event of the evening is her appearance at Netrebko’s dressing room’s door. Dessay asks about her approach to the role. Netrebko says something like “it is very difficult and you have to know where the traps are in order not to fall in any of them”. And then Dessay insists – but you mean vocal, interpretative or scenic traps? And Netrebko goes on with “yes – all that”. But Dessay wants to know the secrets of Netrebko’s mind and suggests – you mean you have an intuitive approach? And Netrebko says “yes – something like that”. But Dessay is indefatigable and says “You mean you can be open to the possibilities because you have already carefully worked out them in rehearsal?”. Netrebko looks at the camera, thinks “Uvy…” to herself and says “Yes – I practice a lot”. That is the moment when Netrebko should have said “Look, Natalie – I am not French. I don’t do philosophy – I just sing”. Dessay winks at the camera with “well, folks, I’ve tried” and leaves Netrebko to her preparation for the Mad Scene. The curious thing is that Netrebko goes to her dressing room with the microphone on her hand. A guy rushes in after her. I guess his mission was to turn the microphone off before it broadcast to the world the word “Bitch…”.

Back to the performance. Although I was not live at the theatre but using my experience with Netrebko’s Elvira from the Met’s Puritani, I feel comfortable to say I would have probably enjoyed her Lucia more than I did either Dessay’s or Damrau’s. Although Dessay’s voice had seen healthier days, the role did not seem to pose her technical challenges and she projects efficiently in the auditorium. What bothered me, it was her detached, over-analyzed approach that, together with indifferent enunciation of the Italian text, gave me the impression that the whole Lucia thing was below her intellect. As for Damrau, she just should not sing that role in a gigantic theatre such as the Met, where a certain curdled quality in her tone brings about the opposite of loveliness. Although both these ladies deal with the coloratura demands far more efficiently than Netrebko – I still feel more comfortable with Netrebko’s richer, larger and more beautiful sound. I also believe that she understands that she is no soprano coloratura and deals with her fioriture in a more delicate, rather Mozartian way that could not be wiser considered the role and her possibilities. Until the Mad Scene, her performance seemed to me a valid alternative to Lucia if you want to hear a darker tone and a more lyric approach to this role. But the fact is that this fearsome scene finds her in disadvantage. She did not let herself overwhelm by the many difficulties, but she did not really transcend them. It was acceptable considering the beauty of her voice and her good taste. Although the close-up angles showed a very much self-possessed look, I somehow liked her more economical gestures in that scene, compared to Dessay and Damrau’s more semaphoric attitude, which seemed finally distracting to my taste. If I have to point out another good novelty, this would be the very light suggestion of repressed incestuous feelings between the siblings. I had never thought of something like that, but this could offer a modern-psychology explanation for a lot happening in this opera.

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It is not that I am in a disliking-mood – to start with, I have found Mary Zimmermann’s staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor silly and cheap-looking from the moment-one, when Natalie Dessay was the selling-feature of this production. It remains so – it is particularly annoying to have extra twenty minutes in the theatre due to problems in the change of such uninspiring sceneries. In any case, the reason for my second visit to this Lucia was Diana Damrau. I have to confess that it was rather the curiosity to see how she would deal with a role which is, on paper, unsuited to her voice.

Before I am thrown stones at, I rush to say that I like Damrau – I find her extraordinarily intelligent and creative, but I wish she could transcend this coloratura-label. Because she does dispatch some amazing fioriture, one tends to indulge the snags, particularly the alternately overmetallic and unfocused quality of her vocal production.  In other words, this is a voice without the hallmark morbidezza an Italian soprano is supposed to have, especially in ingénue roles. As far as we are speaking of mezza voce, this German soprano is adept in producing effortless soft phrasing in every register, but the rest of her singing comes forth as rather harsh and unable to pierce through.  Most of Regnava nel silenzio was a guessing game for the audience and, most inexplicably for a high soprano, she tended to be overshadowed by her partners in duets and ensembles and some of her in alts, true in pitch as they were, could be barely noticed. If I am blunt about this, it is only in the hope that such a serious artist be able to fix these minor but noticeable drawbacks before it is too late.

But let’s speak of the positive aspects in Damrau’s Lucia. First of all, even if Natalie Dessay pulled out a far more polished and coherent performance, I must say I could connect more to Damrau’s work, particularly because of its sincerity – somehow she embraced the character without any “added” attitude or underlying comment. I would say more – in spite of Dessay’s acknowledged talent for acting, I find the newcomer even more compelling in comparison.

When on stage, Damrau is not expertly repeating carefully throught-through and rehearsed routines, but very much “alive” there – reacting to the actual situation of being on stage in a way only experienced actors do.  She also has excellent intuition for finding stage meanings for musical ideas and has personality and vivaciousness to make all that work. It is only a pity that she did not receive enough attention from a director – sometimes she would try too hard and spoil the effect of a good idea by overusing it or doing it in the wrong moment. It is the task of the director to review and correct this, what makes it doubly regrettable that such a skilled performer could not benefit from that.

The problem was particularly bothersome in the mad scene, without any shadow of doubt the highlight of the whole performance (as it should be). There,  Damrau could go beyond the Romantic lyricism and let through just the necessary ounce of nastiness to transform something merely beautiful into something touching. But at moments when she should invest in some repose, to let the effect work, she would try something else or repeat a bit of what she had just done to semaphoric effects.  From the musical point of view, the lighter orchestral accompaniment enabled her more comfort to play with tone colouring and also add a sense of story-telling through phrasing alone. Only in the very end, she could not avoid some hardness and shrillness, but by then she could twist the audience around her little finger.

Her Edgardo was tenor Piotr Beczala, whom I knew from healthy but rather unsubtle Mozart performances. At first, he is more at ease in bel canto repertoire. His voice is pleasant, light but compact. He has considerably elegant phrasing and is sensitive to the text. I can see a Nemorino there, but not much beyond that – Bellini would be too high for him, Rossini would be too fast and, although he has been singing Verdi, I find it heavy for his voice. In any case, Edgardo is a good fit for him – and, even in the closing scene (where the demands were a bit hard on him), he never showed himself other than in an elegant manner. He also interacted beautifully with Damrau in their act I duet and looked believably dangerous in the wedding scene.

In the role of Enrico, Vladimir Stoyanov displayed a velvety middle-size baritone that would work to perfection in a smaller house. At the Met, some of his high notes sounded a bit pale. As in his Leporello, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass seems to be shorter on both ends this day. The timid low register was particularly problematic. 

As for the musical direction, Marco Armiliato showed us the cliché of a Donizetti performance – lively tempi, unpolished phrasing, noisy ensembles and a general idea that the expressive aspects are the singers’ responsability.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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