LammermoorGaetano Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Mary Zimmerman, Natalie Dessay, Joseph Calleja, Ludovic Tézier, Kwangchul Youn | The Met: Live in HD - March 19, 2011

Donizetti’s bel canto operas, with their emphasis on elaborate ornamentation of extremely challenging vocal parts that would give their lead players an opportunity to demonstrate the virtuosity of their singing, were considered somewhat old-fashioned even by the end of the nineteenth century when the huge influence of Richard Wagner put dramatic content back at the heart of the music-drama. Of all Donizetti’s operas, it’s the dramatic tragedy of Lucia de Lammermoor (1835) that is considered to be the opera that gives its prima donna the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal prowess.

It’s a role therefore that Natalie Dessay, along with perhaps La Fille du Regiment, is most associated with, and it’s clearly a role that the French soprano relishes. Dessay starred in the first run of the oft-criticised Mary Zimmerman’s much-maligned 2007 production, and, indulged by the current conductor Patrick Summers, she clearly delights in adding a capella embellishments to the coloratura – particularly in Lucia’s “Mad Scene” at her wedding. There were some worrying signs at the start of the performance that her voice might no longer be quite up to it or that it was showing signs of tiredness perhaps from rather overdoing things in the current run of performances (this Live in HD broadcast was the last Lucia of the season), but Dessay in her interval interview put it down to a dry throat, and certainly didn’t let it affect her extraordinary performance elsewhere.

What is even more wonderful about her performance is that, while fully rising to the challenges of Lucia’s vocal parts, she also managed to remain focussed on her character’s dramatic journey of gradual disintegration. Lucia is torn between she man she loves, Edgardo di Ravenswood, and the duty towards her family, the Ashtons, and comes to feel that she is being used in the great feud that has existed between the two families. Those concerns are heightened by her own fragile state of mind, one perhaps made fragile because of the long-running rivalry that has seen other tragic events take place, events in the past that leave ghosts in the grounds of Lammermoor castle that still haunt Lucia.

Based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, this is the stuff of pure melodrama however, and it can’t honestly be said that Donizetti seeks to give it any greater psychological depth or dramatic credibility, either through the playing out of the intense scenes or through any subtlety in the musical composition of the piece. It’s straightforward blood-and-thunder melodrama fuelled by jealousy and political rivalry (one can see the huge influence the piece has on the works of Verdi in this respect, as well as in some of the musical arrangements), with expressions of deeply romantic and forbidden love, swooning heroines, challenges to duels – the restored Wolf’s Crag scene, often cut, is intact here at the beginning of Act 3, only adding to an already over-heated situation – and of course a descent into pure madness and death with thunderstorms raging outside.

Lammermoor

All of which would seem to give credence to the rather old-fashioned nature of the opera as little more than a dramatic piece for the leading diva to show off her credentials, and in some cases even make a name for herself. To mess about with any of these elements or to try to downplay those excesses could prove fatal to the sheer crowd-pleasing enjoyment that the opera, with its beautiful melodies and dramatic sense of purpose nevertheless contains. This production somehow manages to successfully retain all these elements, while also managing to give a little more depth to the piece, or at least, by even including the presence of real ghosts, throw up other elements for consideration.

Partly, that’s down to the fine production that stirs up echoes of the best cinematic equivalents – the likes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the 1943 Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and even Dreyer’s silent film Michael – films likewise of a bygone age, made during the silent period or shortly afterwards, made to a style that is somewhat old-fashioned now, but still retaining an enormous power of the “they don’t make them like that anymore” kind. They don’t make operas like Lucia di Lammermoor anymore either, but they should be cherished and lavished with a sympathetic presentation and that is fully achieved in the elaborate sets that reach upwards, like an old film in academy ratio rather than in widescreen. If filmed, and shown in black-and-white, this Lucia di Lammermoor could convincingly pass for a film from the late 1930s or early 1940s, in its style, in its content and in its production values.

Given that kind of stage to work with, each of the singers fully enter into the spirit of the drama, but some try to bring a little more shading to the characters. Vocally, all fully meet the demands – Dessay, evidently, but Joseph Callejo is a bit of a revelation, with a classic tenor voice that, with a bit more robustness and fitting of it into a more solid dramatic context, will be a fine singer of bel canto and Verdi dramas. In his interval interview, Ludovic Tézier made some interesting observations about his Enrico, seeing him not just as a stereotypical baritone baddie, but as a character who is as cracked and has been pushed as close to madness as Lucia, adding a further dimension to the tragedy.

On the actual Met Live in HD production itself, Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the more fascinating broadcasts of the season from a backstage point of view, Renée Fleming presenting and managing to get a wealth of behind-the-scenes information from the performers, from the Irish Wolfhound handlers and from backstage crew managers. The two intervals drew out a relatively swift moving opera to excessive lengths (there have been some criticisms of this in the press), but the sheer scale of the elaborate production was revealed in such fascinating detail that the audience at the cinema I attended sat glued to the screen watching the stage-hands manoeuvre it all into place. Along with the success of this particular performance, the clever promotion for the next production, Le Comte Ory, another star-studded bel canto opera, will ensure that the growing attendance at these broadcasts will all be back for more of the same in two weeks time.