The Live from the Met HD broadcast of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was eagerly awaited. All the buzz was about soprano Natalie Dessay in her signature role. Part of this anticipation was Zachary Woolfe’s February review of the production in the New York Times. He accused her of scaling down her performance with an eye to the video camera’s close inspection, making her in-theater performance invisible. “The result is a Lucia almost entirely blank,” he lamented.
While it is impossible to agree with him or not from a seat at the Cedar Hill Cineplex, Dessay’s performance was anything but “blank” in the movie house. While she may have started off a little boring, by the time she got to the famous mad scene, she was pathetically terrible to behold. Appearing wild-eyed and tiny in her blood-soaked wedding dress, she held the movie audience enthralled for the entire 15 minutes it takes to sing it. But giving Woolfe his due, the camera certainly did help her and indeed, some of her smaller expressions might have been lost to the crowd in the upper balcony. But such is always the case in a big opera house and is why many bring binoculars.
The story, based on a book by Sir Walter Scott, has a lot in common with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, in this case she goes through with the engagement to the man chosen for her by her brother, instead of her true love, but stabs him on their wedding night. “That’s mad enough, I think” as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mad Margaret, a character based loosely on Lucia, remarks.
The rest of her performance was also full of details, some fussy and some obvious, but all were consistent with her concept of a woman with a fragile mental state right from the beginning. Vocally, she was in fine shape. Frequently, Lucia’s music can sound like a series of vocal exercises or meaningless flights of vocal fancy. Not here. The overall impression was that this opera looks forward to Verdi’s more vivid musical characterizations. Dessay can deliver a full throated forte and float a gorgeous pianissimo with the exact same placement. Her high “E flat” at the end of the mad scene resonated as though it were in the middle voice.
This bel canto impression was furthered by tenor Joseph Calleja, as her true love Edgardo. He has a bright and youthful sounding lyric tenor voice that harkens back to the pre-Pavarotti era of big voices cast in everything. There was a time when the lyric tenor was an endangered species and those unfortunate singers were forced into parts that were too heavy or had to settle for comprimario roles. It was wonderful to hear the right kind of voice.
On the other hand, Ludovic Tézier as Enrico and Kwangchul Youn as Raimondo both have big voices that would not be out of place in late Verdi and Puccini, or even Wagner for that matter. Tézier showed a tendency to oversing but both scaled their voices to the musical levels that Dessay and Calleja set. Patrick Summers, the Music Director of Houston Grand Opera, keep the orchestral levels under the singers at all times but, because it was all on separate channels and mixed on the spot for broadcast, who knows how it sounded in the hall.
Director Mary Zimmerman (also known for her theater work, including winning a directing Tony in 2002 for Metamorphoses) moved the action forward to the 1850s for no apparent reason other than she liked the costumes of that era better, with bustles galore. Dessay’s first act costume was especially fetching with a very small top hat perched precariously off-center on her coif. The set was realistic at times and abstract at others, perhaps reflecting the title character’s state of mind. But the time change didn’t bring us any new understanding of the opera, so…why?
However, there was one brilliant stage moment that will forever stick in the mind. The famous sextet is always a problem to stage. The six singers are lost in their own thoughts as the action stops for reflection on the sticky wicket in which they find themselves. Zimmerman has them all being assembled for a stiff wedding portrait by a fussy photographer. Right after the last glorious note, he popped the tray of flash powder and took the shot. Just perfect.
► There will be an encore of Lucia di Lammermoor at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 6, at the following local theaters: AMC Northpark Center 15 (Dallas), Cinemark 17 (Dallas), Galaxy Theatre (Dallas), AMC Mesquite 30, Cinemark 14 Cedar Hill, AMC Parks At Arlington 18, Vista Ridge Mall (Lewisville), Tinseltown Movies 17 (Grapevine), Cinemark West Plano, Cinemark 12 Town Center (Mansfield), Cinemark 12 Rockwall, Cinemark 24 (The Legacy, Plano), Fossil Creek (ForT Worth), AMC Palace 9 (Fort Worth), Cinemark Allen 16, Movies 14 (Burleson) and Cinemark 14 (Denton). Call your local theater ahead for tickets as these screening sometimes sell out.
► The rest of Live at the Met HD season is:
- Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1pm April 9, 6:30pm April 27) 3 hours
- Strauss' Capriccio (1pm April 23, 6:30pm May 11) 3 hours
- Verdi's Il Trovatore (1pm April 30, 6:30pm May 18) 3 hours
- Wagner's Die Walküre (noon May 14, 6:30pm June 1) 5 and a half hours