The Dallas Opera's opening night production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House put together everything you could ask for to create a stellar production.
Outside the opera house on Friday, in cooperation with the AT&T Performing Arts Center, a large projection screen and sound system was set up in Sammons Park right outside the opera house. This "Plazacast@the Center" brought the opera to whoever wanted to experience it. A large and appreciative crowd gathered to share in the moment.
The intermissions were filled with interesting interviews with the singers and a great time was had by all. Television and media photographers caught the cream of Dallas society as they arrived and entered down the red carpet. Women in glittering designer gowns, accompanied by tuxedoed men, added a touch of Hollywood to the proceedings.
An elegant cocktail party—part inside and part outside—gave an elegant sheen to the event. Following the opera, those who bought the full gala ticket adjourned to Annette Strauss Square next door, for what was described as a cosmopolitan, late-night dining experience chaired by Amy and Vernon Faulconer and hosted by Deloitte's Blaine Nelson, inside a lavishly decorated tent.
But the main event was the opera itself. All of the elements for a great operatic experience are there, but director doesn't bring it together.
As far as singers go, you could hardly ask for better. All of them are impressive vocally, and physically resemble the characters they are asked to portray.
In the leading role, Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc, making her Dallas Opera debut, has a luscious voice capable of a lovely floating soft sound and as robust a dramatic forcefulness as a naturally light-voiced coloratura soprano usually can muster. She looks frail and vulnerable from the start, so her mad scene just seems to be an extension of what is already an unstable personality. Cynthia Hanna is a mezzo-soprano making her Dallas Opera debut as Lucia's lady-in-waiting, Alisa. She has a big voice with a bit of an edge on it. She is destined to sing the big Verdi roles some day, if she can mellow out the sound as she gets older.
The men also bring great voices and attractive looks to their roles. Local-boy-made-good, tenor Scott Quinn as Normanno, is barely recognizable. His voice has matured and improved significantly since last heard and a reediness that once marred his sound has vanished. He is now a solid tenor with a fine future.
Luca Grassi, whose debut has been eagerly anticipated, has a surprisingly smaller baritone than is usually heard in the role of Enrico Ashton. However, it is a beautiful chocolaty sound that mingles richness with terrific placement, which allows his voice to sound out over even the loudest textures. It is the fact that he sings so intelligently and with near perfect bel canto technique that allows him to sing heavier roles than his natural instrument would allow.
On the other hand, Jordan Bisch as Raimondo, a stunning bass from Washington State, has a huge sound that doesn't sacrifice his bright placement for depth. He is a rarity in the opera world: a natural bass voice with a fresh and a forward placement that allows the sound to ring the rafters. He is making his Dallas Opera debut in these performances, but he is headed for greatness. Let's hope that we can hang on to him in the future. California tenor Aaron Blake as Arturo has an attractive sound, but this role is slight. Still, he held his own in the sextet.
The Best Voice of the Evening award has to go another Dallas Opera debut artist, New Orleans-born tenor Bryan Hymel as Edgardo di Ravenswood. Here is another attractive young singer on a fast track to the top. His voice is unique in that he cobbles together a tenor sound out of many different fachs (singing role categories) which should give him great flexibility in the future, maybe even forays into the German repertoire. While predominately a full-bodied Italian sound full of "ping," there is some baritone-ish overtones that burnish his sound. Besides, he is the most convincing actor on the stage in this production.
In the pit, the orchestra is spectacular. Music director and conductor Graeme Jenkins is at his very best in whipping up a storm with Donizetti's innovative score. His abilities in coordinating the stage with the pit are extraordinary and every nuance of every phrase is lovingly shaped. He is always on top of the text, yet gives his singers and players some room to make music.
The late great costume designer Peter Hall supplies absolutely magnificent costumes. Every one of them is unique, no standard female chorus frock here, and built with amazing attention to detail. Opulent in every way, from the large feathered hats for the peacock men to lacy headdresses for the women, the chorus looks, and sounds, terrific. Costumes for the main players are equally glorious. One can only marvel at the care with which each costume is tailored to the personality of the character.
Scenic designer Henry Bardon, who died in 1991, sets the action in what appears to be the ruins of a once stately castle and grounds, much like the crumbling fortunes of the Ashton family itself. It is all in grays and what colors there are seem muted and faded with time. Lighting designer Marie Barnett keeps the stage dark and moody. All of this combined allows Hall's dazzling costumes to stand out in stark relief from the gloomy stage. We didn't quite go away "whistling the costumes," but they are one of the stars of the production.
Which brings us to the problem with this Lucia.
Stage director Garnett Bruce, when handed such an embarrassment of riches, is basically AWOL. The show is blocked (meaning the actors stand here then move there) but it is not directed in any manner that brings the drama to life. Right from the opening encounter between the clandestine lovers, their passion, on which the whole opera hinges, is pedestrian at best. More like a brother and sister, there are no sparks between them.
Grassi, who is admittedly wooden on stage, sings menacingly but is physically inert. This is especially grievous in the Tower scene, which is frequently cut. This surprise meeting between sworn blood enemies is a polite affair, more like a chance encounter between old high school rivals than the crackling atmosphere that leads to a challenge for a duel to the death. Even fight director Bill Lengfelder can't work his usual magic since these tepid couple of sword parries take place in the back of a crowed stage. The chorus mostly stands around in the dreaded semi-circle. Occasionally a few of them move from one side of the stage to the other for no appetent reason. Even trotting the dead body of Arturo through the crowd doesn't seem to faze them. In fact, the body bearers had trouble making their way through the blasé guests. ("Excuse me, excuse me, body coming through.")
Mosuc is left pretty much to her own devices in the famous mad scene. Although Alisa puts the blood soaked shawl around her shoulders at one point, no one on stage lifts a finger to help or comfort the poor girl, or even take the knife away before she kills somebody else. Once they did, it was set in plain sight on a table where she could easily get it again. These shocking events barely registered on the chorus, which stays staid in their assigned spots until they ooze off the stage (why?), only to return to later. The horror of the events going on only mildly registers with them.
Admittedly, Donizetti doesn't help the poor hapless stage director who is faced with a string of arias and choruses for three acts. You certainly can't have people running all over the stage or a bunch of distracting business going on. Perhaps this is why Bruce apparently decided to stage this opera as a set of tableaux vivants, perfectly arranged stage pictures against which the singers give performances of arias and duets. But we never really feel the motivation behind what is happening.
This is all made completely apparent in the final scene. Once again, left on his own by the director, Hymel puts his considerable acting skills on full display and gives the most convincing performance of the evening as the distraught lover. Of course, the chorus ambles on and brings the knife (it is a relic by now). Since it is there, and so handy, Hymel uses it for his own demise.
The chorus barely noticed that either.
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