When attending a performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at one of the world’s top opera houses one would be very surprised to find a Lucia who is not up to the job. We are, in fact, blessed with an array of professional singers who are well equipped to perform the role to the requisite standard but finding one who can perform to the starry heights of a Callas, a Sutherland or a Netrebko is another matter; such singers are, indeed, a rare and treasured breed, and remembered gratefully by those lucky enough to have seen them in a live performance.
So it was with great anticipation and excitement that La Fenice welcomed one of opera’s rising stars, Nadine Sierra, to perform Lucia in their new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Although only 28, Sierra has already made quite a considerable mark on the opera world, having won numerous high status competitions including the 2017 Richard Tucker Award, presented to singers considered to be on the threshold of stardom, and appeared in numerous roles, most recently as Ilia in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to great critical acclaim. At La Fenice, she was joined by a high-quality cast which included Markus Werba as Lord Enrico, Francesco Demuro as Sir Edgardo, Simon Lim as Raimondo, Francesco Marsiglia as Lord Arthur, Marcello Nardis as Normano and Angela Nicoli as Alisa. Riccardo Frizza conducted and the well-established Italian producer Francesco Micheli was charged with direction. Expectations were therefore understandably high, and they were not to be disappointed.
A Legend in the Making
Maybe it is wrong to focus so much on the role of Lucia. After all, “Lucia di Lammermoor” is undoubtedly one of the 19th century’s great Romantic operatic masterpieces, containing, in addition to its soprano showcases, great ensemble pieces and arias for tenor, baritone, and bass. Yet a soprano showcase it certainly is, and a poor Lucia will kill the show.
So all eyes and ears were on Nadine Sierra as she entered the stage. Almost immediately she launches into two staples of the dramatic coloratura soprano’s repertoire, ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ and ‘Quando rapita’, two numbers she took in her stride. Being markedly different from each other, the two arias allowed Sierra to display the different qualities of her voice as well as her interpretive versatility; the first dark and reflective, betraying her already fragile mental state, the second open, optimistic and positive. She was therefore in a position to display many of the wonderful characteristics that she maintained throughout her performance: the brilliant technique, the purity of tone, the pleasing timbre of the voice, the ease with which she climbed and descended the scale, the dynamic shadings and control, the clarity of the musical line, the dramatic inflections, the sparkling embellishments and silvery trills, but most pleasing of all was her sheer musicality – she sang with such ease, with no signs of vocal stress or of having to force the voice. Moreover, unlike certain divas, the words were clearly projected.
Obviously, the centerpiece for the soprano in this work is the unforgiving ‘mad scene,’ a scene that will either expose the singer’s failings or allow her to shine, bringing comparisons with the great divas of the past. In the case of Nadine Sierra, it was undoubtedly the latter. She employed her considerable technique to conquer the myriad of difficulties contained in the score, producing a strong dramatic and musical reading, with scintillating fioriture. Added to her many musical qualities Sierra has a strong stage presence. On her current trajectory, it certainly does appear that Nadine Sierra will soon be joining the pantheon of great divas, both past, and present, who have essayed the role of Lucia.
As already noted Sierra was accompanied by a strong cast, all who performed well. Tenor Francesco Demuro was an athletic Edgardo, who at one point jumped from a standing position on to a table, and without even a second to pause for breath or to steady himself, started to sing. He was deservedly very well received by the audience in La Fenice. He has a sweet tenor voice, strong in the lower and middle range, and although it is also attractive in the upper register he occasionally lost focus and his tone suffered. This was only an occasional occurrence and did not overly detract from his overall performance. He brought the opera to a conclusion with a near perfect rendition of the cabaletta ‘Tu che a Dio spieggasti l’ali,” before killing himself.
The not-so-nasty Enrico, at least in this production, was the accomplished Austrian baritone Markus Werba. He delivered a fine, well-balanced performance, displaying a strong stage presence and well-honed acting abilities. His voice was even throughout the range with a pleasant timbre. His solo parts were delivered with great elan, and his cabaletta ‘ La pietade in suo favore’ elicited deserved applause from an appreciative audience.
Simon Lim’s Raimondo was particularly pleasing, possessing a warm, resonant bass, with a powerful dynamic range. His portrayal was nuanced and conveyed the inflexible and ultimately damaging nature of the clergyman.
Given the strength of the cast, it is not surprising therefore that the ensemble pieces were performed well, despite an occasional dynamic unevenness. It was also pleasing that the sextet and finale that closes Act 1 was not the static affair it can sometimes become. On the contrary, the movement of the cast and chorus completed a compelling ending to the act: the chorus closing in around Lucia, emphasizing her disorientation and precipitating her further into a state of madness.
The Psychological Damaged Ashton and Ravenswood Families
It is not abnormal for productions to approach “Lucia di Lammermoor” by focusing on the psychological fragility of Lucia caught, as she is, in an emotional vortex from which her mental deterioration and eventual death are a direct result, one from which she cannot escape, a victim of her brother’s manipulations and of the Ashton – Ravenswood blood feud that hangs over the families. In the masterful hands of the director Francesco Micheli, however, it is not only Lucia who is psychologically damaged goods as Enrico and Edgardo are also portrayed as mentally unhinged; as Micheli points out in his programme notes, the three principal characters are orphans and young, barely out of their adolescence and already victims of the internecine fights that have destroyed their families – perfect conditions for dysfunctional development. In the opening scene Enrico is shown in an agitated state, drinking from a bottle, lolling on a couch and burning family letters or pictures, a man clearly not up to managing the task ahead of him. Over the course of the production, we watch as he deteriorates further, his behavior becoming more and more erratic, leading to the final scene in which he wanders deranged and lost amongst the dead in the Ravenswood graveyard. This is a Lucia with three victims, four if you include Arturo: three end up dead and one mentally destroyed, victims of their inherited pasts.
With less able directors ensembles and choruses can be somewhat static: not so in this production! Aided by his set designer Nicholas Bovey, Micheli ensured, through imaginative set designs and the use of the chorus as a proactive dramatic force, keeling the audience visually ensnared. The set was comprised of a simple backdrop of changing vague wild settings, symbolizing a sanctuary to which the protagonists could escape, whilst at the same time being a nod to the Romantic spirit of the piece. These designs were fronted by a pile of old furniture, heaped into a disordered fashion in various states of decay, illustrating the declining fortunes of the Ashton family as well as acting as a symbol for the chaotic mental states of the characters; as they became more deranged so the furniture collapsed around them. During Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ only a single table remained on the stage, whilst other tables were hanging in the air – all sense of reality had now evaporated, the world had now been fully turned upside down. During Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ only a single table remained on the stage, whilst other tables were hanging in the air – all sense of reality had now evaporated, the world had now been fully turned upside down. Yet, thanks to brilliant choreography, this continuous movement of the onstage furniture was barely noticeable.
However, the real coup de theatre was the role Micheli assigned to the chorus. This chorus was not a passive body, no mere appendage to pad out the drama. Under the command of Normanno, who is portrayed as a Mefistofele-type character, and his companion-in-arms Alisa, the chorus is at times malevolent, taunting and intimidating its young victims, and at times indifferent observers to their sufferings. But they are never supportive or under their control. Clearly acting as a metaphor for the demons attacking the thoughts of Lucia, Edgardo, and Enrico, the chorus emerged from out of the furniture surrounding their victims, hemming them in, leaving them with no avenue for escape. Although there were many such marvelous moments, two, in particular, stood out. Firstly, during Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ the chorus was placed at the back of the stage in two neat rows, impassively watching the solitary Lucia in her final moments as she descends into complete madness – their indifference to her suffering was chilling. The second moment came during the Act 2 confrontation between Edgardo and Enrico, as the chorus watched on without any attempt to stop the conflict. As this scene slipped into the following scene of the wedding festivities, the chorus’s joyful merrymaking took on a more sinister appearance, as the audience knows that they are fully aware of the dangerous situation that lies beneath the surface of the celebrations. As a further confirmation of the psychological alienation that is taking hold of the protagonists, Raimondo, whose loyalty is exclusively shown to lie with the church, took every opportunity to raise the cross to bully them into submission.
Costume designs, by Alessio Rosati, were neutral, neither detracting nor adding to the dramatic effect. For the most part, the style was Edwardian, reflecting Micheli’s vision of the action being consistent with early 20th century Italian peasant mentality in which the assets of “land, furniture, and homes” were paramount. No doubt non-Italian and probably many Italian, members of the audience had no idea that such a connection was being made.
A Chamber Music Approach
Riccardo Frizza, conducting, delivered a wonderful reading of the score. He generated a beautiful sound from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, producing colorful shadings and controlled dynamic variations that brought out the dramatic contrasts and highlighted the salient points in the onstage action. His decision to use the glass harmonica rather than the flute during Lucia’s ‘mad scene’, although not to everyone’s taste, was certainly in line with the Micheli’s vision, as it created an eerie, ‘other worldly’ feel to the piece, suggesting the widening gulf between Lucia and reality, and granting us an insight into her unconscious self. Although Frizza achieved a well-balanced sound from the orchestra and the singers, he took the decision to focus on the individual instrumental sections and their dialogue with the singers, which proved to be an interesting and successful choice as it highlighted a subtlety in Donizetti’s score that can so easily be lost. A special mention must also be given to Nabila Chajai, the harpist, who in the Act 1 harp obbligato, produced a sound of exquisite beauty and clarity, a truly rare pleasure in itself!
Unfortunately, this production has only two performances left to play, but if you are fortunate enough to be in Venice or have the time to visit the city, you would be very unwise to miss it.