Argentine duo really make the opera sing

October 10, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

An article in Sunday's Arts and Entertainment section about the Baltimore Opera Company production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" misstated one of the production's curtain times. On Oct. 20, "Lucia" will begin at 7:30 p.m.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

They're the Smith & Wesson of the operatic world. And any production by the Argentine team of Roberto Oswald and Anibal Lapiz usually hits the bull's-eye.

The two most memorable productions of the Baltimore Opera Company in the four years since general director Michael Harrison took over the company have been the work of Oswald, who directs the action, designs the sets and does the lighting, and Lapiz, who designs the costumes and collaborates in the direction. Long after one has forgotten who sang the title roles in their "Salome" (1989) or "Don Carlos" (1991), one will remember the way they looked -- the shimmering desert heat of "Salome," with its sickly decadent beauty, and the plush coloring and lighting of the "Don Carlos," which suggested human beings stretched on a rack between heaven and earth.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

And the sketches for Oswald and Lapiz's staging of "Lucia di Lammermoor," which opens Saturday at the Lyric Opera House, suggest that the pairwill be equally successful at evoking the hallucinatory mists and the Gothic ruins that surround the doomed lovers in Donizetti's operatic rendering of Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel about feuding noble families in 17th-century Scotland.

With the very occasional exception of a star singer such as James Morris, Oswald and Lapiz may be the most internationally important figures who regularly visit the Baltimore Opera. Oswald is director of productions at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, one of the world's great opera houses, and his productions with Lapiz -- whether in Europe, North America or South America -- have often been as warmly received as they have been in Baltimore.

"Everyone is usually very happy with the work they do," says Martin Feinstein, executive director of the Washington Opera and a man who does not ladle out undeserved praise. "Their 'Flying Dutchman' for us several years ago was first class, and their 'Pearl Fishers' last season was even better. I know Dallas was thrilled with their 'Ring.' "

What makes Oswald and Lapiz stand out is that their work is genuinely beautiful in an old-fashioned sense without ever becoming bland, and thought-provoking without doing violence to the intentions of the composer and his librettists.

"They're real magic makers," says the BOC's Harrison, who first worked with Oswald and Lapiz at Opera Columbus. "And they know the music -- they know every note of every piece in the repertory. The production they have designed for 'Lucia' cost only $58,000, but it is so beautiful that I expect that we will make that money back -- and a good bit more -- from rentals [to other companies] within five years."

"It's like something by the Bronte sisters -- 'Jane Eyre' or 'Wuthering Heights,' " says Oswald of his conception of "Lucia." "I have the feeling that this opera must be dominated by foggy and windy places."

"Even the costumes must be heavy," adds Lapiz. "I want to show that the characters are carrying their destinies."

These two -- who have worked together for 22 years, who sometimes speak sentences that begin with each other's periods, and who obviously enjoy each other's company -- could not appear to be more different. Oswald, who is 60 and single, is an attractive, rumpled walrus of a man who is sometimes given to thinking out loud in his fluent, but still heavily Spanish-accented English. The trimly handsome, elegantly haber--ered Lapiz, who is 46, married and has a family, is quieter and chooses words in almost flawless English as carefully as he would select a color for a costume. And they didn't like each other -- or at least Lapiz didn't like Oswald -- at the beginning.

"I was a student at the [school attached to the] Teatro Colan, where he was one of my teachers," says Lapiz with a smile. "We all thought he was a terrible man, and each of us hated him without knowing why."

After graduation, Lapiz spent two years in London as a clothing designer and returned to Buenos Aires in 1968. In 1969, Lapiz, who had become one of his country's most successful young designers, was invited to contribute a show to the city's international exposition.

"I was doing an exhibition about the Teatro Colon, with sets, costumes -- everything," says Oswald.

"My brother-in-law, an architect, kept telling me, 'You must see this man's work -- it's remarkable,' " says Lapiz.

"He was impressed by my designs, and I was impressed by him as a designer," says Oswald.

"I'm a great believer in destiny," Lapiz says of their partnership. "I think that it was fated that we meet again."

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