The Italian operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, those of the primo ottocènto or “bel canto” period, have many enthusiasts, but it would be fair to say their appeal is musical more than literary. The libretti are of greater or lesser quality, but the psychology is encoded in the composer’s vocal lines more than his librettist’s words.
Texts had to be “singable” as that was understood within formulas of the time, and even when the stories were adapted from novels, plays or historical events, complex sources were streamlined and simplified. Few of the libretti, read without the music, impress as brainy or deep. Characters were flattened out into types; great singers put the humanity back in.
At least, that was how it traditionally worked out. Today, important singers specializing in this music are as likely as not to find themselves in novel and challenging stage productions. Recent DVD/Blu-ray releases of Lucia di Lammermoor (Erato) and La favorite (Deutsche Grammophon) can be considered together, as they have much in common. In each, a female director born in the mid-1960s works with a starry cast (headed by a blond diva) for a contemporary, “cerebral” approach to a Donizetti warhorse.
The second scene of Lucia di Lammermoor‘s second act has one of those patented Italian-tenor entrances of old. Just after the wedding contract has been signed, guests comment on commotion in the hall, and the hero, Edgardo, simply “appears.” His first word in the scene, in response to a choral question, is his own shouted name, and the famous sextet follows.
In a controversial Royal Opera House production, new in spring 2016, director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer use a split stage for the entire opera. Ms. Mitchell has earlier taken trouble to show us Lucia opening a window and anxiously peering out of it, as if expecting someone. While the wedding-contract business is going on at stage left, we can see Edgardo climbing through the open window and nosing around in Lucia’s bedroom before his “real” entrance, which becomes an anticlimax.
This detail gives some idea of the whole affair. If you have ever gone home from a Lucia wondering which route Edgardo took to get to the wedding-contract scene, Ms. Mitchell clarifies that. Chances are, you have not wondered this. A lot of skill and ingenuity have gone into “elucidating” Lucia, but much that is new is either banal or beside the point.
It is the sort of production in which the director responds to references to Lucia’s mother by putting the mother in as a second ghost, in addition to the one for the fountain girl. This handsome creation is compelling and miscalculated in equal portions, neither easily dismissed nor easily endorsed.
Lucia’s “Regnava nel silenzio” always has sounded to me like something recalled from an earlier date. I question the gain in its being a recounting of a ghostly encounter shown onstage minutes earlier, during the harp solo (beautifully played). Similarly, Raimondo’s “Dalle stanze, ove Lucia,” the bass’s account to guests of his finding Lucia with her murdered husband, works better as what it originally was, a description of offstage events.
Here, Raimondo goes through the gruesome discovery before our eyes at stage right (Lucia mouths the line he will quote), then treks to stage left and tells the chorus about it.
“I have a strong feminist agenda,” Ms. Mitchell was quoted as announcing. She need not have worried we would miss it. The comprimaria Alisa, Lucia’s maid, is very prominent. At the start, she is a co-conspirator in Lucia’s secret assignations with Edgardo. She is an eyewitness to bullying and oppression of the heroine, is outraged on her behalf, and is devoted enough to assist in the murder of Arturo.
The idea is that what these characters have in common (being women of the production’s 19th-century period) outweighs what separates them (social position). Much attention is given to acts of dressing and undressing. Both women disguise themselves as men for clandestine purposes, and then are shown reverting to restrictive feminine garb of corsets and hoops. Normanno functions as a masculine equivalent for Enrico—a cruel underling for a cruel master. Normanno brandishes a pistol when Lucia considers rebellion or escape.
Ms. Mitchell crams the action of scripted scenes into half the stage’s space in order to show us whatever is going on in simultaneous unscripted scenes. Consequently, choral episodes are cramped and do not breathe, visually. The director places a premium on logic, but her precision raises expectations the piece was not designed to meet. This has the paradoxical effect of making 19th-century opera conventions more absurd than they need be. In a context of documentary realism, we become more aware than ever that dozens of people are standing around mutely while Lucia goes through the vocal pyrotechnics of a mad scene.
The director also challenges the notion of Lucia as helpless victim. Hers is a calculating Lucia, apparently sane at the time of the murder, defiant and unashamed in its aftermath (how did Lucia expect this plan to work out?), but unhinged by the subsequent miscarriage of a child conceived with Edgardo. Again, direction runs up against material—the Lucia dramatized is one with more strength and agency than Donizetti’s plaintive, pathetic music suggests. A certain helplessness is in the notes and the scoring.
Ms. Mitchell’s directorial prowess, which has been profitably brought to bear in 20th- and 21st-century works, is best displayed in the murder scene. This too is realistically done, and gets across that Lucia and Alisa are not practiced assassins, and that it is harder to kill a person than it usually looks in drama. Poor Arturo will not die easily. Blindfolded, he struggles valiantly for his life. The scene is Hitchcockian in its blend of suspense and black comedy, even if it thoroughly upstages the Wolf’s Crag confrontation unfolding on the other side. Margaret Williams‘s video direction, it should be noted, is first-rate.
The cast’s strengths help to some degree. Charles Castronovo, the charismatic Edgardo, manages to retain sympathy even when called upon to strike Lucia in anger. His singing is eloquent and communicative, his dark lyric tenor getting around nimbly, and he is the most successful in delivering classically beautiful vocalism while honoring Ms. Mitchell’s Regietheater predilections.
Diana Damrau decided she wanted to be an opera singer when, at 12, she saw a film in which a great singer (Teresa Stratas as Violetta) was in less than best voice. Like Stratas and Maria Callas—I will risk that third rail of opera reviewing—Damrau can give meaningful, seemingly deeply felt performances even when her voice is not in its best condition. Here, she must, for it is not. Climactic high notes are flung out or screamed, and the one concluding the sextet sags in pitch. Lower-lying passages are carefully managed with an attractive croon. This is the knowingly shaped performance of a seasoned artist, but the voice as a whole sounds thin and stressed.
However, the soprano’s full-bodied commitment to the production can only be admired, with both ecstasy and desperation powerfully conveyed. When Damrau and Castronovo simulate sex to the music’s rhythms in their fountain encounter, the singers communicate surrender to a need that makes this risk worthwhile. We note the words: “My heart goes with you” / “My heart stays with you.” This is intimacy as a consecration, and what could have been risible with lesser performers is quite touching.
Not a note of Ludovic Tézier‘s firm, burgundy-hued Enrico is less than a pleasure to hear, but the baritone appears less at ease than his co-stars with this production. Ms. Mitchell may have meant to explore an incestuous angle, with Enrico following his sister into the bathroom, later relaxing on her unmade bed in a too-familiar fashion. Tézier blunts this by performing the role just as he has done in conventional Lucias, with a stoic, seen-it-all weariness that could be Enrico’s or the singer’s own. Kwangchul Youn‘s unimposing bass is satisfactory to the requirements of Raimondo.
Mezzo Rachael Lloyd, onstage observing and assisting much more than she is singing, gives a performance of detailed and brilliantly modulated expression. Ms. Lloyd really is one of the best reasons to see this Lucia, which is not something I ever imagined writing about an Alisa. The comprimario men, Peter Hoare (Normanno) and Taylor Stayton (Arturo), are strong and memorable presences.
Daniel Oren‘s conducting, longer on sobriety than rhapsody, repeatedly stalls momentum. This combines with the production’s clinical pretensions to make Lucia seem longer and heavier than it is. The orchestra plays very well, together and in solo opportunities. In two bonus features, Mitchell, Damrau, Castronovo and Tézier talk about the undertaking and impress as kind, thoughtful people, and we get an interesting demonstration of the glass harmonica from Philipp Marguerre.
Autumn of the same year brought La favorite to the Bavarian State Opera. Donizetti’s French grand opera of 1840 deals with events of exactly 500 years earlier. The noble mistress of Castilian King Alphonse XI loves and is loved by an aspiring monk who knows almost nothing about her, but forsakes his order and becomes a war hero to be worthy of her. Favorite is less well known than Lucia but turns up not infrequently to showcase a star mezzo.
Most mezzos of the recorded era have sung La favorita, one of several woeful Italian back-translations of French operas by Italian composers. Perhaps this all-star Favorite, in combination with high-visibility new productions of Guillaume Tell, Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos, is a sign that those clumsy products of their time, long past necessity or usefulness, will eventually take their leave. Vive la France.
German director Amélie Niermeyer‘s Favorite seems on the surface less ambitious than Ms. Mitchell’s Lucia, but it too has a feminist bent. Frau Niermeyer directs what she is interested in, a story of sexual politics in which a woman is mistreated, victimized and ultimately cast out for immortality while the men at least half responsible for the immorality get off lightly. The woman’s triumph is in dying as the most virtuous person in the story.
The men she escapes—foolish and self-pitying Fernand, crass and immature Alphonse, judgmental Balthazar—all seem one-dimensional beside her, unworthy of her company.
The opera as written also deals with issues of military conflict and religious devotion, and tensions between church and state that, it is often noted, prefigure those of Verdi’s Don Carlos. Frau Niermeyer treats grand-opera trappings lightly, if at all. Each act takes place on a unit set of movable metal walls. References to shores, flowers and boats are left in the abstract.
Through the set’s mesh, we can see religious iconography, with supernumeraries portraying a writhing crucified Jesus and some female martyrs, but these human totems are figuratively and literally distant from the characters and from us viewers. In contrast, the dynamics between Léonor de Guzman and her two lovers are viewed up close. Their interactions are as modern as their dress, and feel authentically observed, if not lived.
Léonor, Inès and the choral women are playful and lighthearted at their first appearance, teasing Fernand while beckoning him toward something beyond the repressive anonymity he has left behind. The conformist religious order in the preceding scene may as well have been populated by automatons. Alphonse is some powerful, privileged male authority figure who has never been forced to grow up. He is fond of Léonor as one is fond of a possession, but easily discards her when it serves its own interests.
This is a production of Favorite‘s essence, rather than a recreation of its time, its environment or any realistic environment in place of the standard one. There is much skillful direction and acting. If the production has a weakness, it is that 157 minutes of “essence” within that sterile setting can begin to seem an airless experience. The musical performance that goes along with it, fortunately, is a superb one.
This looks very much like a Met cast, and, in fact, includes three of four principals from a Met Roberto Devereux of earlier the same year. (Only Sondra Radvanovsky is missing, but this is a mezzo’s opera. No one was getting Sondra out of bed for Inès.) Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien achieve singing/acting triumphs here, and have done little better in my experience.
Garanca’s pristinely even and lustrous mezzo can encompass Léonor’s low notes and make them count, but is at its best when it can soar, as this music allows it to do, riding over and crowning noisy strettas. The production may have been shaped with Garanca’s stage persona in mind. In any case, it makes good use of her ability to be somehow accessible and mysterious at once. One responds to this Léonor’s suffering while finding her a bit remote, otherworldly.
Kwiecien is a dapper and perversely amusing Alphonse. He and Garanca join for a wordless tour de force during the ballet music. There is no dancing; rather, Alphonse forces his dissatisfied mistress to watch a movie with him. Allegedly this is for her entertainment, but he is much more into it than she. He gropes and manhandles her in slow parts, forgets all about her in exciting ones, buries his face in her cleavage when he cannot stand to look at the screen, jumps up and down with happiness when things turn out well.
Garanca’s face registers boredom, annoyance, amusement in spite of herself, residual fondness.
At moments, such as Alphonse’s granting Léonor’s hand to Fernand with a smarmy unnecessary “introduction,” I was reminded of Kwiecien’s performances as a very different Donizetti baritone character, Malatesta. The baritone’s voice is in good trim here, with handsome tone and suave line.
Polenzani is a likable performer, but the director plays against this, instead exploiting his ability to play dumb or confused. Let us not kid ourselves; this too is an essential component in the tenor toolbox. Fernand is ultimately little more sympathetic and little better than Alphonse. Once past a somewhat reedy “Un ange, une femme inconnue” in the first scene, Polenzani settles in with singing of breadth and skillful dynamic manipulation—an attentive showing.
A less expected pleasure is the Balthazar of a towering Finnish bass, Mika Kares, still on the sunny side of 40 and sounding like Baby Talvela. In this celebrated company, Kares’s healthy, sorted and settled true bass provides some of the best singing.
French soprano Elsa Benoit (gamine gal pal Inès, looking a little like Lisa Loeb) and Welsh tenor Joshua Owen Mills (an extremely dislikable Don Gaspar, which means Mills is doing his job) complete an ensemble without a weak link in matters of either voice or stage presence.
Karel Mark Chichon, who knows his leading lady’s capabilities well (they are married), presides over the Bayerisches Staatsorchester like an assured technician who believes he is conducting great music and is sure he has a great group of singers. He is a real partner and a considerable asset in the proceedings, and pages such as the third act’s conclusion are superbly blended and voiced.
Both of these thoughtful productions have their attractions. Each contains some great performances; each has eccentricities and limitations that may annoy. I find Munich’s La favorite to be the stronger pick of the two, and the one more likely to wear well over repeated viewing and listening.