Murderous plot offers escape

September 16, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There's nothing like spending a couple of doom-and-gloom hours with a bunch of vengeful, wrong-conclusion-jumping, murderous, suicidal Scots to help you forget all the troubles out in the real world -- at least if engaging vocalism, conducting and direction are part of the deal.

That's precisely what Washington Opera is serving up in its new, season-opening production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

It's possible to quibble about some of the staging, which updates the plot from late-16th-century Scotland to a vaguer place in the early 19th century, and an aspect or two of the singing. But, in the end, the essential nature of the drama in the opera has been faithfully respected -- enhanced, in some ways -- while the force of Donizetti's score comes through more intensely than usual.

During Saturday's opening night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Elizabeth Futral offered nearly everything as Lucia. She negotiated coloratura lines unflinchingly and put a telling spin on each phrase. Her acting bore into the character's heart and soul, illuminating the sad progression from girlish, lovesick maiden to a deranged creature who weaves through her wedding guests in a daze and plants a kiss on her horrified brother's lips.

The soprano encountered a steely edge in the upper register; the hardness took some of the bloom off her otherwise eloquent, subtly embellished accounts of Regnava nel silenzio and Quando, rapito in estasi.

But the Mad Scene was delivered with exceptional vocal solidity, beauty and, above all, imagination. Futral's cadenza here was a knockout, containing lots of individualistic touches, capped by a wonderfully strange countermelody to the solo flute's reprise of the love duet. It became the perfect musical illustration of Lucia's unraveled mental state.

Alfredo Portilla, as Edgardo, used his fairly robust tenor with sensitivity and, aside from a few intonation slips, control. This was elegant singing with considerable emotional depth. Jorge Lagunes blustered his way through the role of Enrico; more finesse and tonal variety (and less hamhanded acting) would have been welcome.

As Raimondo, Stephen Morscheck lacked volume, but not warmth or style. Vibrant efforts came from Corey Evan Rotz (Arturo), Keri Alkema (Alisa) and Robert Baker (Normanno). The chorus produced a rich, disciplined sound.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted with an underlying drive, rhythmic elasticity and admirable attentiveness to small details. A couple of coordination glitches between stage and pit proved insignificant in light of the lyrical fire he generated. The orchestra made a strong showing; the flute and harp solos were masterfully realized.

James Noone's scenic design mixes very linear structures with rear projections and scrims that provide a good deal of visual flair. Among the memorable images -- wintry tree limbs in Act 1 forming a Jackson Pollock-like backdrop for the hapless lovers; 32 perfectly arranged antler trophies adorning Enrico's chamber walls, reflecting the man's brutal character; pouring rain outside the castle hall where Lucia's forced marriage takes place.

The lighting design by Kevin Adams makes much of the set's possibilities for ominous shadows. Jess Goldstein's mostly subdued costumes add effectively to the darkness, as in the wedding scene, with all the guests in shades of brown. Lucia's Elizabethan wedding dress doesn't fit with the 1800s fashions elsewhere, but its gleaming color amid all that bleakness provides a neat startle.

Director Marthe Keller, an experienced film actress, knows how to get convincing movements from the cast (a few hand-on-head cliches aside) and sets up some compelling stage pictures. One novel touch is having Lucia's dead body brought out and laid (not very plausibly) on the snowy ground near the expiring Edgardo, allowing for a Romeo and Juliet tableaux at the final curtain.

Another novelty could use rethinking. The wedding guests greet Arturo with musically synchronized hand gestures (a cross between Scottish dancing -- without any dancing -- and the signals guys use to guide airplanes into gates). Your guess is as good as mine.

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