Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was thunderously received on its opening night performance this past Saturday, November 12, and there is a lot to report. Under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, the opera has been updated to a time period when the men are constantly wearing military jackets, red sashes, and a blonde Lucia wears pink hoop dresses. The sets, which came to Atlanta via Opera Cleveland, were composed of concrete walls accented partially with stacked stone, which coupled with projected backgrounds helped define the space for the audience. Only for the fact that the stark setting allowed the director to lavish in some striking imagery (the final scene resembled watered down Edward Gorey, which I, a former goth kid, enjoyed) the need for this update escaped me. Other aspects of Zvulun’s production are likely to either wow or offend depending on the sensibilities. Scene changes were enhanced with samples of Sir Walter Scott’s novel projected against the curtain, and judging from the whispering around me this innovation grew tiresome as the evening wore on, especially for those unfortunate patrons trying to read what was presented to them in its entirety.
This intent to employ the production to comment on the proceedings, mixed with Zvulun’s next big misstep, bothered me to a degree. During Lucia’s aria di sortita “Regnava nel silenzio”, Zvulun introduced the ghostly hallucination Lucia describes in the flesh. Now allow me this: Donizetti has lavished this scene with a wealth of detail and through his score, not just the text, we know that the ghost has been heard by Lucia first, and then seen afterwards. The musical imagery of her unstable obsession is clearly realized in the aria’s orchestral fabric, and when the singer jilts into flights of nervous and spiky coloratura, we begin to see before us a mind that is not altogether well. By showing the ghost onstage, Zvulun has in essence nullified these musical devices. It’s a bit like training an artist to painstakingly develop the skills to paint a portrait in oils for years, and then just handing the pupil a disposable camera at the end of the course. By materializing the musical effect visually, we are robbed of the aural picture and ultimately of one of the miracles of opera: To see with the mind’s ear. At best, the production was very stylish, and I will leave it at that.
The musical leadership was entrusted to maestro Arthur Fagen, whose elegant and clear baton held the musical proceedings together effortlessly. When not supporting the onstage soloists, such as in the opera’s prelude or the harp accompanied introduction to Lucia’s entrance, he set respectively a brooding and melancholy atmosphere. Throughout the mad scene, he led an orchestra enhanced by a glass harmonica (played by Dennis James) to further realize a supernatural effect, and it was a joy to experience. His elastic direction also catered to the singers’ expression, setting the basis for great music making when the more inspired artists took to the stage. On the other hand, when the vocalist was not up to par (such as was the case in the opera’s final scene), the language of Donizetti was beautifully realized in the hands of the orchestra. Thus, Mr. Fagen became a sort of refuge whenever storms of confusion brewed onstage. His measured contribution helped counterbalance some of the evening’s shortcomings, and made the better aspects of the performance possible. It helped that, for the most part, he worked with a great cast.
Essaying the first Lucias of her career, soprano Georgia Jarman functioned more than well as Donizetti’s unhappy heroine. The specifics of this voice are consistent with those found in sopranos of the lyric coloratura brand, though I noted an interesting and disparate quality: While the sonic strength lived at the top, the more compelling and colorful sounds were found in her middle tones. The overall voice has an attractive girlish timbre, and grows in size (if a tad brittle) as it ascends upwards. The top region of her range reportedly projected to the back of the house with ease, while the rest of the voice was best heard up-close. What this voice sorely lacks is ‘face’, and though she accomplished the majority of the score’s challenges, her singing was not particularly memorable, so at the end of the night her sound was not easily recalled as one braved the parking lot (thank God for notes). Still, she sang very well. In her first offering “Regnava nell silenzio,” her description of the vision was thoughtfully realized within its rapid jolts and halts, and if one ignored Zvulun’s apparition onstage, a real vocal characterization was taking place. The section that followed, “Quando rapito in estasi,” was less successful. Here the singer must betray the codependent nature of her relationship and further reveal the nervous side of this fragile girl. This did not materialize. Furthermore, this section was handled in an efficient but square manner, the musicality replaced by mechanics that were not always serviceable (the runs were well executed but the trills were sketchy). She capped the scene with a blunt high D that was loud, brittle and hair-raising. As the meeting with Edgardo degraded into a confrontation of wills, and perhaps due to the lack of support from her partner (more on him later), her work suffered. Major opportunities in the duet “Sulla tomba che rinserra” were missed, and the closing number, “Verrano a te” never quite settled into her throat. On the way to it, however, she accomplished an excellent effect in an unassuming portion of the recitative hovering over a sequence of repeated middle Cs, beginning with the line: “Ah, talor del tuo pensiero vengar un foglio messaggero” (Ah, now and then send a message of your thoughts). From here on, the assessment of her work became less quantitative, as we had amongst us a singer capable of catching the spirit of the Donizettian line. She proved this was no accident during her act two duet with Enrico: “Soffriva nel pianto”. Here, she again suspended her melancholy line in a wistful and touching fashion through the creative emission of her middle notes, which though miniature, proved more interesting and soulful than her sizeable top. The stretta “Sei tradirmi tu potrai” found Ms. Jarman at her most defiant, and though her singing was slack muscled, she earned an ovation by capping the ensemble with another high D. It was also in the second act where her acting abilities were most dynamic, and during the wedding sequence she was at her histrionic best.
All of this, of course, was a long preparation to the show stopping mad scene that dominates the first scene of the third act (so much so that there is a school of thought which would mandate that after her final high note, the opera would do well to simply end). Here, Ms. Jarman veritably gave the audience all she had to offer, and realized the disjunct passages of the first sections, “Il dolce suono” and “Ardon gli incensi” in a touching and expressive way. She was less happy in the final cabaletta “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” where her phrasing took a back seat to pyrotechnics, leaving her singing short of a certain degree of cohesion and line. Wide leaps were achieved by ungainly lunges and the trills on middle B-flat, another indication of this poor soul’s cracked mind, were only indicated. As the reprise gave way to the final cadenza, she laid down her final card: An exposed E-flat that was thunderously applauded by the nearly sold-out auditorium.
Ms. Jarman’s overall performance was very promising. Being that this is her first stab (ha ha!) at the part, there are naturally several details she can improve upon. Yet the overall marks are more than passing, and when compared with the work of some current Lucias of greater fame, she is already a fine exponent of the role.
The case of tenor Jonathan Boyd was far less complex, as his anemic portrayal of Edgardo came short on just about any level. From his first utterance until the opera’s end, Mr. Boyd produced his naturally light tenor through a forward attack in head voice, building his phrases with what came across as an unstable yawn. Such lack of variety in technique resulted in a general absence of suavity and vibrancy throughout the range, and one quickly gave up searching for any art in his declamation. In addition, the technical limitations were called out whenever the basic markings of forte or piano were requested of the artist, and while the quieter sections gave hint of the serene voice hiding behind all the puffing and blowing, the more intense passages were uncomfortable to hear; in fact, several key moments came to grief altogether.
One of these, the curse scene during he wedding banquet, was painfully forced to the edge of cracking. In his final aria “Fra poco a me ricovero,” the break did occur attempting a climatic high B. These shortcomings do little to serve Donizetti’s Edgardo (the part was a favorite of Duprez and Mario for a reason), and rendered his singing both monochromatic and somewhat impotent. One suspected the voice was of a gentler quality, but muscled beyond its natural attributes in the effort to magnify its impact. In the process, one heard a voice tortured by its method, and not content with inflicting such treatment unto his own instrument, he shared the experience with the audience for a period of nearly two and half hours. One was grateful that, in order to avoid the rising tessitura of his final aria, he died early as a clever means of ducking the final B-flat. Sashay away…
Fortunately for the performance, the rest of the men were in much better vocal and artistic shape, and their most significant contribution came from Stephen Powell in the part of Enrico. Mr. Powell possesses a baritone of imposing size and color, and the well-schooled manner with which he wielded this instrument elevated his status as the most impressive member of the cast. His was the first principal voice to be heard during the opera’s opening scene, which provides the baritone with many opportunities to establish a vocal characterization before he has to sing a melody. Mr. Powell took ample advantage of these, punctuating his phrasing in a stylish and authoritative fashion. His first aria, “Cruda funesta smania” set a high bar for those to follow. It showcased a voice of rich, masculine sound, easily summoned throughout its range, and kept lithe enough to navigate the various turns in full voice, all the while capable of shaping the bel canto line in full voice. Not content with his display, he graced the aria’s reprise by unleashing an optional full voiced high G without breaking the line of his song. The ensuing cabaletta “La pietade in suo favore,” with its sudden shifts between long lines and rapid turns, held no terrors, and was delivered in full voice all the way up to its resolving high G.
Enrico is not seen again until the second act, where we find him plotting the demise of his sister’s affair with Edgardo. This is a key moment in the action, as Lucia ultimately goes mad because she is torn between her overwhelming dependence on Edgardo and the gigantic guilt trip imposed on her by Enrico. Since Mr. Boyd did little to contribute towards his part of this equation, failure from Mr. Powell would have resulted in a terrible blow to the opera’s dramatic trajectory. Thankfully this was not the case. In the duet “Soffriva nel pianto,” his phrasing seemed further fueled by Ms. Jarman’s inspired reading of the opening lines, and before us we had a rare instance of two artists inspiring each other. The tempo di mezzo that ties the aria to the final stretta was particularly effective. After Mr. Powell’s description of his political plight devastated the heroine, he imperiously roared: “Il devi!” (You must!) and knelt before Ms. Jarman, placing her hands on his head. He had finally cornered the young woman to the edge of her limits, leaving the scene to allow the bass to complete what he had started. One may complaint that as an actor, Mr. Powell’s stage presence was at times lacking, but the voice was already doing the heavy lifting in creating the picture of the manipulating brother, and that’s what the gig ultimately requires.
The same could not be said of the work of Arthur Woodley as Raimondo, whose striking basso cantabile made a lasting impression by its very sound. He had the very thing lacking in Ms. Jarman: A distinctive voice that stayed in the mind long after the performance was over. However, he did not take full advantage of his instrument, and imposing as it was, his singing did little to shape his characterization. Most of the dramatic profile of his Raimondo, in fact, was achieved through his stage deportment, and while this functions to a degree, one is left to wonder at the untapped potential living in the throat of this singer. In his dialogue with Mr. Powell’s Enrico in act one, Mr. Woodley impressed in the polished delivery of the short segment: “Dolente vergin” but even here, limits in diction and word painting were evident. He returned to the stage in the often-deleted duet with Lucia in act two: “Cedi, cedi,” which again featured the same luscious tone but square phrasing, and though his voice rang out: “O gioia!” (O joy!) in reaction to Lucia’s acquiescence, only his warm embrace carried the emotion. The bass’s final offering, the aria “Dalle stanze ove Lucia”, is a significant bit of music since its derivative would later appear in Verdi’s Nabucco (the famous chorus “Va pensiero”). It precedes Lucia’s mad scene and serves as a narrative to the wedding guests, in turn making great demands upon the singer’s gifts for story telling. In the hands of Mr. Woodley, it remained a variable affair, and the murder of Lucia’s husband was described more or less in a placid way. Though there were for sure some subtle touches (a fine rubato in the word “freddo” indicating that he paused before the corpse’s cold body in order to take it all in), there was little horror or outrage to be heard in his delivery until the final bars of his solo. In the end, his was a good Raimondo with the potential of being a very fine one. This is not to take away from his awesome talent, and his may potentially be a world-class career if his art is handled with better care.
The comprimario parts were also finely cast. The role of Normanno was entrusted to Nathan Munson, whose light and alert tenor blended well with the chorus in the opera’s opening ensemble. As Lucia’s friend Alisa, mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely excelled in true comprimario fashion by setting up the better qualities of the prima donna, and exuded a familiarity to her duties that is seldom seen nowadays. Finally, Timothy Culver sang the role of Arturo with the tenor voice one had hoped to hear from the leading man, and in his forty-nine second aria, he represented his fach in a way that had not been heard all night. His was the only tenor voice to make it past the orchestra in the famous sextet, and it was a slight disappointing that he only returned to the stage in the third act as a silent corpse.
Despite some reservations and the absence of a significant leading man, the Atlanta Opera’s presentation of Lucia di Lammermoor remains a must see show. There are two performances left on the run, so you better hurry. For tickets and more information, please visit the Atlanta Opera’s website at: http://www.atlantaopera.org/