Dreary night for `Lucia'

But conductor Buckley gives it an elegant spin

Opera Review

April 29, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It was a dark and rainy night - perfect weather for Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera where folks are bathed in gloom, battered by ill winds, bedeviled by jealousy, hatred and madness.

Some of the dreariness outside the Lyric Opera House on Saturday, where the Baltimore Opera Company opened its production of this Donizetti favorite, crept inside - occasional waves of provincial singing, bursts of bloopers in the orchestra, mundane stage direction.

Although the audience sounded thoroughly delighted by everything that went on, the performance left a lot of Lucia's potential unfulfilled, especially in the first act. Still, as the evening progressed, it was possible to savor the ever-potent essence of this opera, its compact and superbly paced score, its dramatic thrust. This was thanks in large measure to conductor Richard Buckley.

He infused the music with life; the constant ebb and flow in his tempos kept things from ever settling into humdrum patterns. One of his most individualistic and striking touches was to have everyone hold onto the last note of the Sextet forever (too bad the brass let him down at the cutoff).

Buckley's careful concern for dynamic contrasts helped key moments register deeply. And he put an elegant spin on all of Donizetti's melodic lines, not just the famous bits. You don't always hear the choral passages in this opera shaped so sensitively by a conductor.

The conductor isn't supposed to be the star of Lucia, of course, which brings us to Valeria Esposito. There's no question that this soprano can sing the title role. Her sweet, if small, voice revealed many of the necessary ingredients, including an ability to spin out long-breathed phrases. Her acting was assured and, in the mad scene, touching.

But Esposito's method of producing high soft notes involved an abrupt shift of vocal gears that often interrupted the flow of the music; the process seemed more like an affectation than an interpretive device. As for loud high notes, they were sometimes brilliant, sometimes squeezed. Things came together most persuasively for the singer in the mad scene (though she was partnered in the cadenza by an awfully ragged flute).

I wish Esposito had added more embellishments to her arias. The venerable tradition of ornamenting vocal lines in operas of this period may no longer be ruled musically correct, but I'm not ready to disavow it yet. This performance could have benefited greatly from it.

Roberto Aronica's portrayal of Edgardo hit its stride in the final scene, which he sang with passion and style. Earlier the tenor's tone tended to be nasal, his articulation not always focused. Giorgio Cebrian revealed a worn baritone and listless phrasing as Enrico. Hao Jiang Tian's firm, warm bass voice and telling inflections brought depth to the character of Raimondo.

In the small role of Arturo, Lucia's groom for an hour, Peabody grad student Israel Lozano nearly stole Act 2. This was remarkable singing, full of color and power, with ripe, round, firmly supported tones and beautifully considered phrases.

For the most part, the chorus did smooth, expressive work. In the pit, the horns hardly ever met an entrance they couldn't flub, but the strings were generally in strong shape.

Visually, the production could not have been much more old-fashioned, with its more or less unit set and traditional costumes. It all looked pretty enough, but rather dull. Most of the action took place in a small central space, framed by the scenery like a painting, which suited Flavio Trevisan's often static direction.

When he wasn't just putting singers into routine poses, he was apt to do silly things - having men suddenly reach for their swords at the start of the Sextet, setting off titters in the audience; placing pairs of spear-carriers in odd poses and putting the chorus through overly studied steps in the wedding scene.

Trevisan is not the first director to have Lucia stab herself at the end of the mad scene, instead of being led off-stage as the libretto has it. But it still looks like overkill.

Opera

What: "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $37 to $130

Call: 410-727-6000

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