Cher Public

‘Tis new to thee

luciaDonizetti’s bel canto masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor returned to Chicago Lyric Opera on Saturday evening in a “new to Chicago” but well-travelled production by Graham Vick

And whatever one thinks of this production, last night we had in spades what every great bel canto opera needs: spectacularly good singing from the principals and the Lyric Opera chorus, and wonderful playing by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under debuting conductor Enrique Mazzola. The audience responded with an enthusiasm rarely heard from the usually staid crowd at the Civic Opera House.

Maestro Mazzoli led a very idiosyncratic reading of the score, occasionally too loud and bangy (the overture) and occasionally too fast (the Act One duet “Verrano a te…” sped by as if Edgardo couldn’t wait to get on that boat) but there was never an unexciting moment. The overall arc and sweep of the music was very well served and the playing of the orchestra shimmered with emotion. Mazzoli’s sensitivity to the singers was palpable. Overall, it was an important debut.

Vick’s production has many elements that succeed, like the luminous full moon that glowers over the proceedings, and the sense of dark foreboding on the bleak moors. Set and costume designer Paul Brown gives us an unrelentingly grey backdrop, flats with grey storm clouds, and twisted dead trees that set off his colorful costumes, allowing Chris Maravich’s effectively moody lighting to provide contrast with the bleak background.

Flats are used in a kind of “split screen” way, closing off all or part of the action, closing and opening vertically and horizontally. While this effect worked in creating either large or small spaces, it caused real harm to the beginning of Lucia’s Mad Scene, when she was revealed with agonizing slowness by the lowering flat, forcing her to begin the scene with only her head and shoulders visible.

I also had problems with Lucia’s opening scene. As Lucia and Alisa arrived on the heather-covered floor I kept thinking “There’s nowhere to sit—no edge of the fountain, not even a little bench—are they going to have to play this scene wandering aimlessly?” Finally they just sat on the floor, forced to mime the fountain as if they were sitting on the bank of a river.

It must also be mentioned that, in the Wedding Scene, there occurred the worst moment of stage combat that this reviewer has ever seen. The skirmish between Arturo, Enrico, and Edgardo was so poorly conceived and executed that it garnered laughs from the audience, breaking the tension and flow of the scene.

lucia-1But, ahhhh! The singing! Piotr Beczala was a marvel as Edgardo, singing with romantic ardor and passion and sheer clarion vocalism while letting us see every aspect of the mercurial Ravenswood. Costumed and handsomely wigged in the role, Beczala was softly romantic with Lucia in the first act, furiously swaggering as he challenges Enrico, and finally plaintive and defeated in a deeply moving tomb scene. This tenor is always good, but last night I had the feeling that he has now moved to a higher level of performance.

Veteran Lyric Opera baritone Quinn Kelsey made a superb Enrico, drunkenly lurching about the stage in his first entrance and hulking over Lucia (like Trump glowering over Hillary in the second debate!). His was an unusually fearsome brother, prone to furious outbursts and seething with hatred for the Ravenswoods. Yet he sang with great power tempered with smoothness, never barking, a model of bel canto style.

Also making a solid vocal and histrionic contribution was debuting Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean as Raimondo, singing with tonal beauty and sensitive phrasing in his scena that precedes the Mad Scene. Jonathan Johnson’s lovely lyric tenor made for a vocally fine Arturo, though the fey characterization was a bit much.

This was my first hearing of Albina Shagimuratova, and I came away mightily impressed with the sheer beauty of her glistening soprano and her power and stamina to be singing just as well in the Mad Scene as she had in her first. Hers is one of those voices that one wants to call silvery and liquid, tossing off the role’s highest notes with ease.

She had terrific coloratura fireworks in her opening scene, “Regnava nel silenzio… Quando rapito in estasi”, met with a huge ovation, and though she was not as fragile a Lucia as I would have preferred, she brought real sensitivity to text and a fine sense of phrasing to the entire role. Her Mad Scene was quite effective as well, though I think that, as she continues in the role, that she will find more emotional depth.

I was trying all evening to avoid comparisons to the 2004 Lyric Lucia with Natalie Dessay, one of the finest evenings I ever spent in an opera house. I was mostly successful, and Ms. Shagimuratova was her vocal equal in every way but didn’t have the specificity of choices or the full range of varying emotions that make for one of the great Lucias. Yet.

This was an evening of very fine music-making and I highly recommend it. The fine vocalism of the three principals and the chemistry they achieved with each other was palpable and riveting throughout the performance.

Photos: Andrew Cioffi/Lyric Opera of Chicago

  • Porgy Amor

    Great review.

    though I think that, as she continues in the role, that she will find more emotional depth

    One hopes. The Met broadcast a few years ago was a notably bland traversal, at least as heard on the radio without whatever she might have been giving on stage. I wrote “a few years ago” and then looked it up and it was March 2015. That’s how much it has receded. This isn’t saying anything against the tone or the technique, but she could have been singing about anything.

    There are some good names in this. Known quantities Beczala and Kelsey, of course. I was impressed with Sampetrean in a Berlin Trovatore (Ferrando), and much more recently impressed in my first encounter with the conducting of Mazzola (a different, less-well-known Donizetti opera).

    • Krunoslav

      I wouldn’t hold your breath.

      Her *extremely* well vocalized Lucia in Los Angeles in March 2014 may have been-- in terms of expressivity--the blankest “major artist turn” I have heard since Sharon Sweet’s San Fran Aida in 1989.

      • How DAST you, Krunoslava!!!!!! I AM Sharon Sweet!!! Not only do I resemble her (tremble!!!) but I LOVED her Met debut (Trovatore). Her voice was huge, wide-ranging, she had superb coloratura, good declamation and was very musical. It was good end game Shirley, too (this was in 1990) and who would have missed the demented train wreck who used the name Bonisolli (as Little Ricky Muti said to me: “he went from being a good lyric tenor and — amazing — a trained musician — to a crazy man — to a clown. To be one of those things is good for a tenor, to be ALL of them in one lifetime, that is legendary!!!”).

        She was also a better than average Aida for that time, once with YOU, Barbara Dever, and then in the park where I was living at the time, with your favorite tenor, Kristián Jóhannsson and who can forget Ghena Dimitrova’s first Met Amneris with ME/Sharon (of course I didn’t notice her, I never pay attention to the mezzo) and Lando Bartolini, actually a very good Italian tenor no one liked (as Sharon I told him to stay away from me or I’d sit on him). And there was the decent Met Turandot, but she was better in Paris (it’s an opera I don’t like but she did better than the many, Jane Eaglen especially). And in the Forza, at least she didn’t tranpose or deal often with the tenor who did, sabotaging poor Mr. Chernov who would have had to be a bass in their duets. But alas her back went out and gave her trouble from the first — unevenness resulted as did some bad performances (one trembles in memory of her Lina in Stiffelio with that same tenor, poor Maria Spacagna was possibly better in that first run with Giorgio Lamberti-Icoffalotti. Ah well, ancient times — who knew there was in the Divine Plan Julianna Di Giacomo to come, another favorite of yours with that pin up you have all over your bedroom Jose Cura (well, at least pictures don’t sing. The first time, the very first time, I met him, he did, all unbidden, thirty karate poses — I assume that’s what they were although the Kamasutra in braille went through my mind — he would have been so much more at home as one of the Village People). Then of course there was everybody’s fave Sondra R — in her period of buzzy out of tune but LOUD commentary on the notes. Ohime… where was I…?

        • Armerjacquino

          Having heard various unhinged spinto tenor stuff from Bonisolli, I was astonished to find a CLEMENZA on Opera Depot where he is pretty much ideal, ‘Se all’impero’ and all. It also features Janet Coster and Beverly Wolff, who- since they were respected artists who did decent work without bothering stardom- I will join in the prevailing mood and claim as ME.

          I’ve mentioned this before, but I saw Dimitrova as Amneris in Rome when I was a student. I was excited about seeing the paint-stripping singer from the VHS of TURANDOT I had at home, but the fact is I don’t remember her performance at all. Like everyone in the house that night, I left the performance stunned by Nina Rautio. I’ve never had a full report on how she crashed and burned at the Met; all I can say is that in Rome in 1993 she was an Aida and a Puccini Manon such as memories are made of.

          • Amerjaquino, MY BEST FRIEND!!!! Rautio gave several spectacular performances of The Maid of Orleans with the visiting Bolshoi. The audience who had never heard of her was stunned. She was utterly thrilling, in the same way as the marvelous Gorchakova. I saw that Manon Lescaut in Rome, she was very impressive. Alas, the Scala Manon Lescaut was less good and she more or less had come a cropper when she returned to the Met as Aida. And that was it. Gorchakova probably had a few more years than Rautio. They were both thrilling talents. But I wonder if more of such have come along in the last twenty-five years — Ursula Schroder-Feinen was stunning too (well, that’s more than a quarter century ago but when you’re 345 as I am what is time?). Or it may be the cliche: “big voices have big troubles”. They had enormous voices. And all sang the heaviest roles from the start — Gorchakova gave unstintingly as Renata in the Fiery Angel and Ursula just flooded tone out in the various Wagner and Strauss roles she sang. A pity… for them and such as we who remember when large scale richness was not such a rarity.

            • Armerjacquino

              Dearest frenemy Mrs JC (see, I get it now) I’m glad someone else saw Rautio at her best. Funnily enough, I had a similar but different feeling when I saw Micaela Carosi as Aida at CG a few years ago- that night there was a sense that here was a proper spinto voice that could have had everyone whimpering with joy, but that I was hearing it a couple of years too late which given she was in her late 30s was a shame. Did she come back after her, um, *sudden* pregnancy?

            • I didn’t see Carosi at her much reported best (I believe it was impressive but another very short prime). I never know with these ladies — it’s probably always been a problem with girls with really big, wide ranging voices.

            • Luvtennis

              OMG. I thought I was the only Rautio admirer in the known universe. Her performance as Manson Lescaut was gloriously sung. And her recording of Puccini arias on the strange compilation recording is spectacular. Especially her “Se Come Voi” which is stunning imho.

              How sad that neither she nor Galina lasted longer. Sigh.

            • spiderman

              Rautio has lots of Videos on her youtube-page. Unfortunately the 1996 Aida in New York already showed her decline, where the voice only worked with power, so it was all loud loud loud and screamed. I think in 1998 there was a very unfortunate Donna Anna of her in Washington (without a single nice review) that must have sealed her end.

            • Luvtennis

              Atkins, Mrs. JC. ATKINS.

            • Luvtennis

              It worked for me when I was desperate to get back to my normal weight. I lost 114 lbs in 8 months while eating 3 lbs of pork spare ribs per day. And have kept it off for 15 years.

              Or there is always coke or meth???? Hello?!? Weren’t you a habitue of Studio 54 at some point?!?

              Seriously though, Atkins worked for me.

              Feel free to devastate me in your response.

            • I lay like Mrs. Titurel amouldering alive in the grave and you offer KALE??? Luvtennis, Luvtennis, quanto mi costi?!!!

        • Krunoslav

          I happened to walk out after a 1994 CARMELITES matinée dominated by Helga, Stratas and Quivar (the critics’ darling smiling through Blanche looked and acted like the earnest president of a Midwestern high school French club, as unconvincing an assumption of class, period or nationality as I have ever witnessed) to see that Sweet had cancelled the evening STIFFELIO. So I immediately got tickets (as did my date, which got him points though distance separated us soon after). Maria Spacagna and Giorgio Lamberti (who had learned to control pitch since his BOCCANEGRA and PIRATA pirates w/ the divine M. Price and the fabu Maliponte, both with a masterful Bruson) were far more convincing than what I heard on the broadcast/telecast.

          Sweet sounded amazing technically in that 1989 San Fran AIDA- she just had nothing to say, not in any one word. Zajick and Tim Noble stole the show EASILY, with Popov loud and dull (a real voice, but also nothing to say and no musico-dramatical savvy at all).

          I much later (2007) saw her in a well-staged semi-seated Turandot in Princeton: she had her moments.

          • But Krunoslava, EVERYBODY knows the Met Dialogues to see was Von Stade, ME (Patricia Craig), SEMI-ME (Mignon Dunn), poor Gwynn Cornell, adorable Betsy Norden and YES, your favorite Jean Kraft (and I bet YOU don’t have her “O Don Fatale” as I do, accompaniment, Peter G. Davis), Batyah Godfrey Ben-David and Mo. Manuel Rosenthal. I did LOVE Helga and Flo Quivar though, who I knew from long before. Stratas, well… I weep at the memory of Tim Noble singing Ives Songs at NY City Ballet…

            • Krunoslav

              Given that von Stade was naturally aristocratic and sang excellent French, I thought that she was curiously muted as Blanche, which I had expected her to triumph in. I concluded that she just read too nice and ‘together’ onstage to evoke the character’s self-centered neurosis-- something that came easily enough to the future ex-Lady Hall. It wasn’t until DANGEROUS LIASIONS some years later that Flicka really channeled anything less than “admirable” onstage-- and then she did it with relish!

              Patricia Craig was indeed one of the best Lidoines that production witnessed.

            • The Lady Hall….!!! Indeed! Ewing and Behrens two suppurating wounds. Pat Craig studied with Magda who said she was her ONLY pupil “who understood”. Pat did a wonderful Katiusha in Cleveland, MY part, conducted by Christopher Keene in English. I support opera in English but NOT in MY roles. She was wonderful (and I sigh for Mo. Keene, a very right minded individual. He even did Midsummer Marriage at City quite well despite audience hostility — well those queens didn’t like tunes. Although maybe some of the derision was due to Francesca Zambello’s choice of decor: sylvan shower curtains). I was asked to do Dangerous Liasions but was contracted elsewhere… sad, it would have been fun to do. I loved everybody involved but my life has been cursed as no doubt all know. Well, some know… maybe, none know?

  • chicagoing

    I tend to avoid opening nights but I was present for this Lucia on Saturday and was totally impressed with the vocalism on display so much so that I hope to return for another performance. Albina Shagimuratova was my first Gilda in her LOC debut a few years back and I am encouraged that a local reviewer suggests that there are plans in place for future appearances here on the Lyric stage. Piotr Beczala was amazing and I made note that his web site was already updated by Monday morning with the rapturous reviews he received for his Edgardo. I had the same reservations about certain aspects of the staging. The interior scenes were overly dark, which made Arturo;s blindingly white costume look even more ridiculous. He appeared to have wandered in from a Der Rosenkavalier production. The sword play was indeed poor although Johan Botha in Lohengrin, who was not even trying, still gets my vote for worst staged duel.

  • Nelly della Vittoria

    So I thought Albina S made all of Konstanze’s crazy in-love-with-death scales-in-the-stratosphere sound downright easy in last season’s Entführung, but dramatically it was a bit of a nothing. Given the Met’s let-there-be-Turkish-delight staging, I didn’t think to blame her in particular.

  • I see I have just committed the 13th comment! To avoid ill omen, how’s it hangin’? Should one use the term bel canto? Surely all know it was a press agent’s tag to hype Adelina Patti? It doesn’t mean anything. Should one perhaps not say, “early romantic” instead, or “early romantic opera”? Clearly Bellini and Donizetti and the young Verdi were part of the romantic movement that started up throughout Europe. All knew Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (to whatever degree but contrary to assumptions and many opera queens today they were curious about the instrumental music that preceded them or was created by still living but much older composers. The three may not have been titans of questing aesthetic intellect but they were very savvy musicians). They turned the tactics of the giants to their own somewhat lesser but far from puny uses. Bellini often mentioned Mozart’s K488. Its gorgeous sustained slow movement, a slow siciliana in F sharp minor — MY key — changed for mysterious reasons from an adagio to andante — but why? — was clearly an ancestrix of his own long, sustained gorgeous cantilenas. All knew the experiments in Paris… and masterpiece? I don’t know. The term is over used surely. Must something be a masterpiece to be worth knowing? Look at me, I’m worth knowing (and have only been stamped unwanted and returned 64% of the time and am hardly a masterpiece). Donizetti’s skills were considerable and seriously applied despite his insane output. If one listens to the Mackerras recording of the critical edition with score one notices how he uses the nearly always trimmed repetitions endemic to Italian opera style of his time to great effect, and how atmospheric his scoring is when the band is small and very attentive to nuance and blend. Even the vocal lines, accurately sung and intelligently inflected show what can be done with a relatively simple creative method (though only Bruce Ford makes an outstanding impression in purely vocal terms). Oops, I think I’ve escaped the curse of 13. All ignore!

    • Nelly della Vittoria

      MrsJC, I’m just pleased at your ancestral-ish word that has no ancestors; I think it’s very cunning. Better ancestrix than the coy 16th-century ‘ancestress’, as neither has precedent in the their sexless ancêtres et antecessores.

      Also — In the feeble and no-doubt antiquated sort of music lessons one had when one was an infant, one was often told that the sort of intensely simple arpeggiated orchestration you encounter in the Bellini cantilenas was already, in the 1820s, low and leftover Classicism that proved that the damned opera was always twenty years behind serious music, and that it made no sense to say ‘Romantic’ of Norma and the Chopin études in one breath (Probably fair, even if they were saying it less than fairly?), and we should stop doing it, silly children. I gave up and have circumspectly said primo ottocento ever since like a very great coward.

      • You are right, O Nelly. But primo ottocento although by far the more precise term is recherche for the many. That is why I suggest “early romantic”. Of course, the amazing invention of Chopin was hardly matched in his lifetime but then perhaps one could say that he was “ahead of the curve”, the Italians rather behind it and it all comes out more or less even in reviewer speak which should be ball park accurate but perhaps not expected to be “specialist-precise”. I’ve never understood “bel canto” although it’s popular. I even see it in Italian reviews, although more often of singers (I’ve seen “belcantista” for example, a most unusual expression). I remember those music lessons and don’t recall Italians ever being spoken of, except for say, Frescobaldi and by some, Gesualdo, with whom a kinship with Stravinsky was asserted and of course Caccini mainly as an influence on the denotation of tempo (tactus, etc). These operas were below the sight lines of scholars then. But while it’s true that strictly speaking a case can’t be made for the sophistication of these works they have values and virtues. And it is artificial to create “eras”, isn’t it? Surely there has always been an overlap. Popularized classicism as in the Italian opera, is different from works originally meant for a small, better informed audience which equals early romanticism with romanticism denoting a lowering of rigorous standards to achieve a more populist penetration (?). I wonder if we twain are alone in our interest in these things and opera, too?

        • Nelly della Vittoria

          Re: values and virtues, yes indeed, and isn’t it partly the problem of which art gets to form the discipline, and which discipline gets to dictate terms and vocabulary to criticism? I mean, seriousness by the rubric of “classical” instrumental music and scholarship is--what? Something like the rigour and inventiveness with which you can demonstrate harmonic and motivic development across various generic lengths and forms of musical time; at least, until the twentieth century? A definition by which Haydn sonatas and Mozart’s piano concerti do very well (not that there are many criteria by which the latter would do ill) but how much can Lucy Ravenswood be doing with that sort of thing while she has all that trysting and stabbing and general berserkering to do? But those old (older) words from literature and poetics--rhetoric, mimesis, narrative, pathos, tragic pity and fear--in a way haven’t they as much (some might suggest more) to say about the goings-on at Lammermoor? Not least about the words, but about the notes too? They--the antique-y Italian words, the legato flights and plunges of the soprano melodies--make appeals to sentiment in a way that music criticism wants to call vulgar, but which a… a more-literary scholarship might just call rhetorical force, narrative interest in women’s oppression, and mimetic cleverness in representing Going Stark Staring Bonkers? Pity and fear indeed. I dunno. I’ll shut up now.

          • It is, I think, an interesting point, Nelly, that the terms of drama such as mimesis, poesis and rhetoric are fairer in evaluating “opera” (certainly numbers operas as these commercial works from the first part of the 19th century are) than those of musical theory.
            Your case for the music of Lucia is compelling, since the composer’s goal was not the creation of a self propelling, totally cohesive musical entity but of a theater piece where an elaborate musical and vocal rhetoric is used to “universalize” the drama.

            The responsiveness of the human brain to musical cues (sad or happy music, music that goes “haywire” when a character goes mad, etc) has been demonstrated to exist regardless of culture. The minor keys are heard as “sad” world wide, dance rhythms, drones, dislocations in the expected musical line are heard everywhere to signify psychological states. Surfaces may be very different but the fundamentals show a surprising consistency. Thus it seems sensible to assert that a Western composer working in a climate receptive to the marriage of music and dramatic action would of necessity be more responsive to local cues in the story than to the challenge of creating an over all arc that makes musical sense.

            Though mimetic implications are not essential to “absolute” music they are not uniformally absent either. One may take the Pastoral Symphony as “demonstrating” to a degree the experiences one might have on a day in “nature”. There is a thunder storm. There is walking around — all that repetition for example. In the first movement’s development, the five note motif derived from the second bar of the Introduction is as you know repeated 36 times without interruption and then once more. Then there is dancing and finally a prayer. One needn’t accept Berlioz’ insistence that every bar has a specific “meaning” (non-musical) to experience the symphony as a kind of story with some dramatic eruptions. And one can look at Haydn symphonies such as The Farewell (apparently the only 18th century symphony written in f-sharp minor, my key) or “The Surprise”. And as for Mozart what is one to make of the start of the fourth movement of the g minor quintet, that astounding, heart breaking adagio in g minor and then — a pause — who has died? Who has seen what suffering in the glass and known how worthless all pursuits are? Perhaps it is the composer himself for after that pause where one dies a little too — there is that wild eruption into G major and a manic joy. Is it a flight from a terrifying adumbration of anguish?

            Well, as you can see it’s late after the “debate” and ill fancies have hold of old ladies who have run out of Milano cookies. I’m afraid that I still think Mozart has written the songful masterpiece shot through with sorrow, and Mr. Donizetti, a well made entertainment. It may be that the necessary blatancy of opera, the exhibitionism of its performance contains a kind of falseness.

            But if one has the opera disease and fancies voices (I am sick indeed) then this is just to argue a certain case not to make a pronouncement.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              O wise MrsJC, I don’t actually disagree, and I wouldn’t argue against the charges of coquetry, cupidity and vulgar, panem-et-circenses pandering that even the most besotted of us would level against the canon of opera. I don’t pretend Lucia, whatever its virtues, is on a level with the Mozart quintet. (What I think of myself is the first movement of the C minor piano concerto, where the piano solo rebels so haplessly in E-flat major against the tonic mystery and dread of the orchestral exposition, only to find, in that seeming-endless figure in descending scales that precedes the first orchestral ritornello, that joy is mysterious and unknowable too.)

              I remembered Berlioz when you said it, but also Helen Schlegel in Howards End, with her dancing elephants in Beethoven’s Fifth, and the talking goblins of the third movement--“Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.”

              I’ll only say that I think those numbers-operas (the ones that aren’t paint-by-numbers too) can, like the, er, mind of Montaigne, hold contradictory thoughts without exploding; and that even if a thing is cheap trash we can’t guarantee that it’s not songful and masterly too--if only by turns. But you know this full well, and say it better than I do.

              It strikes me that in the previous century, Fiordiligi sings, with a mastery and eloquence that carry all before them, precisely *about* being having become cheap trash--performing this contradiction as she performs others. I mean, saying over a bunch of octave-leaps that you’re immo-hoo-vable as stone? There’s narrative irony for you, and set alongside the dramatic irony of our knowing precisely what’s going on and her not having the foggiest. Is there a way to “read” the sound of this music (or, heaven knows, Elvira’s in Don Giovanni) without using those literary words?

              Anyway. To be silly, I fully believe that dagger was put in Norma’s hands to goad the Milanesi into a frenzy, but well, there are frenzies and frenzies: who is to say the people who tried to steal bits of Bellini’s corpse on its way to the graveyard were any madder than the men and women who gave each other black eyes fighting over Liszt’s gloves?

    • Luvtennis

      Mrs. JC:

      Do you think that the changes in style in instrumental performance practices influence singing and/or composing styles? I am thinking of the rise virtuoso instrumentalists (strings and piano) and whether it affected writing for the voice.