Cher Public

BASTA: Once more from the top

With just under a week to go before dress rehearsal and opening night, the principals of Algonquin Opera’s season-opener, Lucia di Lammermoor, assembled for a run-though of Acts I and III.  Of all the production’s leads, only its headlining soprano, Katarina Nippelnaya (“The Parakeet from Petersburg”), had performed the opera before. And yet they all wished, for reasons at once superstitious and deeply misguided, to avoid over-rehearsing the sextet. 

They’d telephoned their agents, anxiously petitioned Algonquin stage managers, launched a clever Instagram campaign (“No Act Two Before the Shwo,” hashtagged Pita Larssen, the handsome Swede playing Enrico). These singing thespians weren’t to be coerced. They had celebrated international carrières, they argued, reputazioni that spoke volumes for their artistic whims.

The idea was that Act II, with its forged letters and mistaken betrayals in a seventeenth century Scottish castle, would be better left “unblemished by the artifice of excessive rehearsing,” as director Sir Pedro McMillan put it to the Metro Times.

In a sensational, beguilingly illustrated spread on the coming-together of “New York’s biggest production of the season” (“In Love With Lammermoor: See How the Algonquin Opera Created ‘Lucia’”), the newspaper mined the company’s army of artisans and technicians and costumers and jewelers and milliners for fawning quotes on the momentousness of their respective contributions.

“Tartan tam o’ shanters aren’t darned overnight,” McMillan quipped to the reporter while walking him through aisles of serge, toories, and Balmoral bonnets. “This is a new dawn for the A.O. … Or should I say, a new Donizetti!”

As the Metro article pointed out, years of steampunk regie and other unorthodox misfires—including a disastrous Lucia in 2007 that set the opera in Bergen-Belsen—had strengthened Algonquin general manager Carlos Alberti’s resolve to give audiences what they wanted: a traditional show, true to the brooding fancies of Sir Walter Scott.

McMillan, a director celebrated in Europe for his opulent Zeffirelli-school approach to theater and his penchant for kilts, had been hired to deliver his usual excesses. Working closely with Algonquin’s scholarly cadre of dramaturges and set designers, he’d labored to evoke the Lammermuir Hills, with its darkly patrician gardens, parks, crags, and graveyards.

The set’s true crowning point came in the form of a miniature copy of Glamis Castle, whose red sandstone walls and pointed turrets could be cranked soundlessly open to reveal the sculpted apartments of Lord Ashton and his entourage.

Dozens of carpenters and painters had worked tirelessly to perfect the astonishing look of the castle. Alberti joked to Metro’s breathless reporters that he’d had to ply union leaders with five crates of Frizzante in order to get the castle built on time.

Of course, in all this, the more lavish and indulgent the production, the more inescapable the behind-the-scenes drama.

Algonquin had lost two of its leading attractions not a month before opening night: perennial canceler tenor Boris Kaufmann and, in a disruptive scandal that had already spurred four think pieces on sexual bullying in the classical music industry, Maestro Jerold Offerman.

Substituting for Kaufmann in the role of Edgardo Ravenswood was a young Georgian tenor named Grigor Sillivili. A mainstay at the Mariinsky, Sillivili had grabbed international headlines of his own the previous April for exiting the La Scala stage during its run of Aida.

Early in the first act, he’s thought he heard boos from the drowd (in fact, it was just some toddler wrestling with his brother for some stolen Milka Luflée), and, right before the “Celeste Aida” B-flat, stormed off in a huff. But Sillivili’s entanglements didn’t end there: rumor had it that he was currently romancing one Katarina Nippelnaya, this season’s Lucia.

Carlos Alberti could smell a juicy Algonquin debut from a mile away. The role of Lord Ravenswood would go to the Terror of Tbilisi.

With Jerold Offerman embroiled in Hungry Hippo-related scandals of his own, Alberti would also have to make some quick decisions regarding the production’s musical direction. But who would step in when all other conductors were tied up with other engagements? Fabio Armadillo was at the Royal Opera House conducting Bohème; Marco Parcheesi was in Zurich for Don Carlo.

Reluctantly, Alberti handed the podium to Sal Piesessenbitz. The aging Austrian-American, though hailed as his generation’s leading Wagner specialist, had suffered from deteriorating vision in recent years—those blasted cataracts!—and now, despite his agent’s fervent claims to the contrary, was only partially sighted at best.

Alberti knew he’d have to turn a blind eye.

“Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” A.O. interns could hear the general manager’s unmistakable sobs from behind closed doors the day he placed the call with Piesessenbitz.

Presiding over tonight’s Act One rehearsal, the replacement maestro and director McMillan sat smugly at the piano with the répétiteur, the former croaking out orders at both Nippelnaya and the bug-eyed Juilliard graduate playing Alisa, her handmaid.

“Louder, please… And I said velocissimo, Katya. Please!” Piesessenbitz leapt to his feet to interrupt a very warbly “Regnava nel silenzio.”

“Vot these es’ ghost stowry, Maestro!” responded the Russian diva, defiantly. “Better for slow singink!”

“I don’t care if you’re singing about your little boyfriend’s birthday party,” Piesessenbitz replied with equal defiance, glancing over at Sillivilli, who was obliviously devouring a Mars Bar. “Velocissimo, pozhalsta.”

“You want rapido, you wait for cabaletta!”

“Svelto and clamoroso, Madame!”

Nippelnaya sighed, steadied herself, and nodded to the pianist.

Qual di chi parla, muoversi il labbro suo vedea

The soprano sang Cammarano’s haunting lyric wistfully, but with more force than usual. Her eyes widened and went black, as they always did, in that witchy, transfixed way that made her famous, as she lost herself herself in the aria.

Collectively, Piesessenbitz and McMillan lost themselves for a moment as well. Kaufmann stopped breathing.

In the gardens of her brother’s estate, Lucy Ashton recalled her vision of limpid water turned blood-red, and left her trance. As though suddenly tickled, peals of coloratura stung her tale of a girl killed by a jealous Ravenswood ancestor, forecasting not only the cabaletta, but also the moods that would overtake her in Act Three.

In time, Lucy’s lover would appear in the park with rings, and whispers, and velvet-voiced marriage promises that would pierce the family castle and penetrate her heart. How foreign it felt to her now to love a man this way, when all her life she’d known only the love of a brother whose caresses gave her shivers but little satisfaction. How else could she express this strange, distorted, electric new feeling but in little celebrations—in leaps and trills and runs and infatuated chatter?

Here, at last, was teen love in miniature, replete with its various choices. She could live in a state of dream-induced fear or rejoice in the sensational discovery of a kindred. She could proudly run to Alisa bursting with news, or else sit quietly in the heather with her pooling emotions.

Or else, she supposed, she could simply go mad.

Illustration by Ben A. Cohen