A Bel Canto Bonanza — Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula’ and ‘I Puritani,’ Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola,’ and Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ (Continuation)

It’s All in the Presentation

Natalie Dessay in the "Made Scene" from Lucia (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Natalie Dessay in the “Made Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

A word or two are in order about the conductor of I Puritani, Michelle Mariotti, the native from Pesaro (Rossini’s hometown) who impressed the heck out of me with his scorching delivery of Verdi’s Rigoletto back in February 2013. Having whipped the Met Opera Orchestra into tip-top shape for that performance, I fear the maestro lost track of the big picture with I Puritani, neglecting the wider subtleties of this more refined work.

Hey, it’s not called “The Puritans of Scotland” (in the English translation) for nothing! Although the characters all sing in suitable Italian, they’re PURITANS, for Sir Walter Scott’s sake! Bellini, that supreme master of the long legato line, composed such genuinely heartfelt tunes, such glowingly melodic inventions for his personalities, that one could reach out and touch their finery with the index finger of one’s hand. Well, if not literally, then certainly figuratively.

To accomplish this phenomenon, a conductor must guide the singers along in an easygoing yet firmly-structured path: too “loosey goosey,” and the entire framework collapses of its own weight; too rigid and unbending, and the fragrance of these scores loses their delicate bouquet. This way or that way, it’s the conductor’s call, a refinement of form that few present-day orchestra leaders have mastered or have time for in today’s globe-trotting environment.

To bring the argument down to earth, what worked so splendidly in Verdi may not function as well with Bellini. In this situation, I felt the performance of Puritani to be rushed beyond all measure. Surely, Mariotti can slow down just enough to allow his singers the autonomy necessary to concentrate on the action and text, and the orchestra a good deal more flexibility. Beyond this observation, which reflects my personal preferences in this music, the maestro came through as expected.

Now for the productions themselves, several of which displayed questionable choices. Mary Zimmerman, the director of La Sonnambula as well as the televised Lucia di Lammermoor (from a few years prior), appears to be enamored of modern dress; well, if it must be said, so does every other director at the Met of late. In this respect, Zimmerman is in good company. Why, just about every new production I’ve seen or read about in Opera News or Opera World, the New York Times or any number of publications that cover the arts, exhibit photographs of standard and non-standard works in tiresome modern dress, or as near to modern dress as the director’s conception allows.

While this has been going on for far too many years, it’s becoming old hat. Even worse, it is wearing out its welcome (note the failure of the Met’s hideous new Faust from 2011). What was once novel and inventive is at present turning stale. When the bel canto revival began in the 1950s, as I noted in the first part of my piece, the goal was to recreate the ambience and “feel” of these neglected works — if not in actual practice, then at least in how these operas looked.

This meant that if La Sonnambula was originally set in a picturesque, Swiss mountain village in the early nineteenth-century, then the scenery, sets and costumes would reflect that specific time period and locale. And if I Puritani or Lucia di Lammermoor were supposed to take place in craggy seventeenth-century Scotland, then by golly that’s where they took place!

The Met Opera’s revival of the thirty-year-old Sandro Sequi production of Puritani certainly kept to those themes. With sets by Ming Cho Lee, and flowery and lacy costume designs by Peter J. Hall, the old-fashioned formalities favored by Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, who starred in this production when it was new, is a quaint holdover of the “stand up and sing” approach the house once took with respect to this repertoire.

My, how times have changed! By contrast, the revised La Sonnambula outline featured six characters (not including the notary) in search of an author — or rather, in search of a plot thread to tie into Zimmerman’s play-within-a-play theory. Some directors try to fit an opera’s story and text to their own peculiar vision for what the work “should” be; others understand the inherent limitations of combining a viable concept with the composer’s original intentions.

Lights, Camera, Action!

And then there are those who impose their will on a piece, whether or not the piece is too fragile to withstand such treatment, i.e., of being turned literally on its head. Such is the problem with a work where (according to the Met’s description) the participants are gathered in “a rehearsal room where singers are preparing a production of La Sonnambula set in a Swiss village. The story, actions and characters,” the description goes on to say, “are all coincident with those of the rehearsal room.” Uh, right.

Joseph Calleja as Edgardo, and Natalie Dessay as Lucia, in Act I

Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) and Natalie Dessay (Lucia) in Act I

Zimmerman’s view of Lucia di Lammermoor, however, comes off better in this regard, with some ghostly touches and a gigantic full moon hovering in the background — these are in sync with the supernatural flavor of the work itself. Moving the action up by two centuries, there are lovely cream-colored garments and frilly ball gowns for the ladies, and nicely cropped outfits and trim waste coats for the men, all courtesy of costume designer Mara Blumenfeld.

A darling little hat sits atop Lucia’s head, an adorable accessory that complements her riding garb in Act I, scene ii. In addition, both Edgardo’s swirling black overcoat and Enrico’s slate-gray variety are exceptionally smart and well tailored. In point of fact, all the costumes served not only to delineate character but to flatter the wearer as well, whether they were worn by Anna Netrebko in an earlier incarnation, or Natalie Dessay in the Live in HD broadcast I caught in mid-August.

As much as I have admired Netrebko’s assumption of the role, which I also recorded, for me Dessay’s Lucia had the edge in capturing the character’s unbalanced state of mind and bipolar temperament. On the other hand, the general state of her vocal equipment was worrisome. For the past twenty years, Dessay has conquered the world’s major opera houses with incredible feats of vocal legerdemain. Lately, the strength of that ability to put over a role vocally has dwindled noticeably, just as her artistry has expanded to its current extraordinary status.

As an actress playing a role, she is without par. If Netrebko has lately assumed the mantle of a true Verdian soprano with sufficient volume and heft to her tone, then Dessay is the ultimate throwback to a time when the likes of Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt dominated the news. Despite diminished vocal resources, Ms. Dessay is more than capable of overcoming any barrier to success. In this, she plainly delivers. I believe the high definition technology now in use in a number of movie houses favors her minimalist approach BETTER than any exposure in the theater might bring. What this will mean for her future in opera is anybody’s guess. Yet, down the road I predict a fabulous new career for Ms. Dessay as a director: she is, if I may be allowed, THAT GOOD!

Her colleagues in the Live in HD Lucia — Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as a hefty but lyrically adept Edgardo, the French-born Ludovic Tézier as Lucia’s brother Enrico, and bass Kwangchul Youn as the chaplain Raimundo — all made notable contributions to the overall quality of this broadcast. Conducted by Patrick Summers, who brought an experienced hand and unique understanding of this opera’s musical and vocal requirements, the update in time period did no visible damage to what turned out to be an enjoyable transmission.

Some people have complained about that intrusive wedding photographer during the famous Act II sextet, especially when he snaps the picture of the wedding party at the ensemble’s climax. My thought was to its actual relevance to the action, which was the forced marriage of Lucia to Arturo Bucklaw. Why wouldn’t there be a photographer present? It added to the reality of the moment, that Lucia’s betrayal of her betrothed, Edgardo, would be preserved in a photo for all to see, thus making her dilemma that much more intolerable.

However, I was really thrown off by baritone Tézier’s uncanny resemblance to Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film series. Indeed, he may have needed Snape’s combative spirit and magical abilities in relaying the fiery side of Enrico’s personality: his performance was decidedly underpowered and lacked the florid embellishments that Calleja, and especially Dessay, carried off in their individual episodes. For example, Dessay’s Mad Scene was a tour de force example of uniting action, voice and words to the character’s deranged mind; and Calleja’s own “mad scene,” or more accurately his death watch, served as a lesson in concentrated intensity.

Edgardo's death scene, with Dessay and Calleja

Edgardo’s death scene, with Dessay and Calleja

About that last scene: some viewers were confused about the ghost that materializes with Edgardo as he lies dying from a self-imposed wound. That ghost, who is mentioned in Lucia’s Act I narrative “Regnava nel silenzio,” is made manifest in this production. Mary Zimmerman was quoted as saying that in previous treatments, this ghost is a “figment of Lucia’s imagination and a precursor to her eventual madness.” In her production, Zimmerman “visualized Lucia as completely sane until the tragic events forced her into madness. Therefore, the ghost was real,” or as real as any of the other characters. So in the end, Lucia becomes the ghost that she initially envisioned.

The remaining cast members, though satisfying overall, were unquestionably not on this artistic level. And while the opera was performed complete (not “note complete,” as I would have preferred, but that’s a general complaint of mine), some of the cadenzas and extensions that Donizetti had so carefully conveyed in the score were either cut short or overlooked entirely.

Let’s face it, folks: I make no bones about the fact that Lucia is my favorite bel canto work. I have a soft spot for it, since it was the first complete opera I got to see at the now-defunct New York City Opera way back in the summer of July 1975, in the famed Tito Capobianco production unveiled for the legendary Beverly Sills. The cast that I heard included Ruth Welting, Gene Bullard, Pablo Elvira, and Maurizio Mazzieri, with Giuseppe Morelli on the podium. I was so thrilled at finally having witnessed a real-live opera event, with full orchestra and costumes and atmospheric sets, that I was permanently hooked!

Since that long-ago experience, rare is the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor that has lifted me to those youthful, marvelous heights as that initial encounter had. Ah, well, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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