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