|Soprano Brenda Rae as Lucia and Santa Fe Apprentices in Donizetti's Lucia de Lamermoor (photo by Ken Howard)
Another brilliant evening at the Santa Fe Opera brought to us another compelling heroine--the fragile and vulnerable Lucia portrayed by the brilliant soprano Brenda Rae who impressed us four years ago as Violetta. What a stunning contrast with last night's Alcina, a heroine who is manipulative and deceitful! Lucia is a an unfortunate young woman who wants nothing more than to wed her beloved Edgardo, sung by terrific tenor Mario Chang who has also impressed us in the past five years since we began writing www.vocedimeche.reviews. Mr. Chang made an exceptional Edgardo, gathering impact as the evening progressed. His final scene was heartbreaking.
In Salvadore Cammarano's libretto, based on a work by Sir Walter Scott, poor Lucia is thwarted by her desperate brother Enrico, whose political future, and perhaps his life, hang upon his establishing a relationship with Lord Arturo Bucklaw; Baritone Zachary Nelson (about whom we have also been writing for about five years) lent his forceful stage presence and rich voice to the role. Lucia becomes a pawn in this political intrigue and is manipulated into signing a contract of marriage with Lord Bucklaw, here portrayed by a promising member of the Apprentice Program--Carlos Santelli, who has a pleasing, if somewhat covered sound.
Obviously, this cannot end well! Indeed, by the end of the opera, Lucia has died of a broken heart, Arturo has been murdered on his wedding night, Edgardo commits suicide by grabbing Enrico's dagger, and Enrico will probably suffer the ignominious defeat of one who falls out of favor with the court.
What makes Gaetano Donizetti's opera such a favorite is the theme of a woman's suffering at the hands of men, the torrent of tunes that fell from Donizetti's pen, and the opportunity to hear a favorite soprano unravel to the accompaniment of the eerie sound of a glass harmonica, here played by international expert Friedrich Heinrich Kern. (Thanks Benjamin Franklin for this amazing invention!) The lengthy mad scene requires the casting of a soprano of prodigious coloratura skills-- but the rest of the opera requires her to arouse our sympathy. To this end, Ms. Rae succeeded admirably on both counts. It was a riveting performance that completely deserved the standing ovation at the end of the performance.
Also notable was bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Raimondo the Chaplain and apprentice Stephen Martin as Normanno, Captain of the Guard, who takes the rap for Lucia's death by virtue of having exposed her illicit romance with Edgardo of Ravenswood, her brother's arch enemy.
One of the great pleasures of the Santa Fe Opera is witnessing the rise of the apprentice singers. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit captured our notice when she sang the role of Laurene Jobs in a preview of The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs which we attended in NYC at Works and Process at the Guggenheim Museum. Last night she sang the role of Lucia's companion Alisa and she sang it with superb vocal resources and appropriate deference to Ms. Rae.
Maestro Corrado Rovaris, a notable bel canto expert, led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra which sounded superb, as always. We thought that his somewhat accelerated tempi for the first act was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it increased the sense of urgency in the plot; on the other hand, we missed the sense of spaciousness he provided for the singers in the second act.
All of the singers impressed us with their musicality of phrasing; the variations of dynamics and tempi as well as vocal coloration indicated the presence of true artistry. The vocal blending in the sextet (when Edgardo crashes the wedding celebration) could not have been better and was second only to the mad scene in its ability to astonish us with the writing of Donizetti and the performances of the singers.
Also noteworthy were the confrontational duets between Mr. Nelson and Mr. Chang--two powerful artists matching artistry with equivalent artistry.
Director Ron Daniels went for a minimalist approach, such a contrast with last night's overcooked Alcina. He set the opera at the time Donizetti composed it--thankfully not in contemporary times. The principals seemed well directed toward sustaining dramatic verisimilitude but the chorus seemed static, standing in rows and moving rather mechanically and in unison. We take issue with Lucia visiting her brother in his bedroom; it just seemed inappropriately informal. And it bothered us that Lucia's hallucinations were invisible to the audience whilst Edgardo's dying hallucination was presented onstage. However, it was indeed a gorgeous image of Ms. Rae looking pure and heavenly!
The chorus, comprising the Santa Fe Apprentices and under the fine direction of Susanne Sheston, sang with similar superb musicianship and well-defined diction. We expect no less!
Riccardo Hernandez' set design was also minimalistic. The walls and ceiling comprised square panels done in skewed perspective that emphasized the feeling of claustrophobia that Lucia must have felt. The fateful fountain at which Lucia hallucinates a ghost was a fluorescent plastic tub of water. There was nothing great about the great hall in which the wedding ceremony took place. Edgardo's room was nothing but a chair and tiny table with a lamp. This simplicity is not a bad thing but another double-edged sword in that it allowed us to focus more on the performances than on the background.
Peter Negrini's projections overlay the walls with images of forests. Effective lighting was by Christopher Akerlind.
Emily Rebholz' costume design worked very well for the women who wore muted ball gowns to the wedding, as one would expect among the Scottish aristocracy. But the men at the ball were dressed in white tie and tails and not sporting kilts or the colors of their clan, which we have come to expect. The men looked more authentic in the first act, wearing dark clothes trimmed in fur.
The ball scene also included some dancing, choreographed by Zack Winokur, which was vaguely "folk" but markedly un-Scottish.
We left at the end of the opera feeling fulfilled on all counts, but especially that of witnessing the success of former apprentices. We hope to find Ms. Coit, Mr. Santelli, and Mr. Martin following in their footsteps within the next five years!
(c) meche kroop