Summers, Patrick


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.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins | The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011

It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.

Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.

It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.

Iphigenie

Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.

The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.