Opera de Paris 2022-23 Review: Lucia di Lammermoor

Brenda Rae gives haunting performance as Lucia

By Mauricio Villa

Opera de Paris presented their classic production of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” by Andrei Serban, which has been in their repertoire since 1995. In nearly thirty years, the best sopranos have incarnated the titular role at the Bastille. Names like June Anderson, Mariela Devia, Sumi Jo, and Natalie Dessay. Roberto Alagna performed Edgardo when the opera premiered. This time, the French company brought on Brenda Rae, a soprano who is getting international attention, and tenor Javier Camarena as Edgardo.

Although the production is twenty-eight years old, it looks modern. Perhaps the concept of staging the opera in a gymnasium full of ropes and exercise equipment was a scandal back in 1995. But we are used to modern concepts and abstract productions today. The question to ask is, “Does this placement of the story add something to it, such as the meaning or the psychological state of the characters?” The answer is no.

You could basically stage every opera with this set and concept. But Serban is a very good stage director, and the performance was full of memorable moments, like Lucia balancing in a swing and the position of the choir in an upper gallery. The staging of the “mad scene,” or the apparition of several ghosts of Lucia, all dressed in a wedding gown and a white veil, used three actors were used to give the illusion that the ghost could appear and disappear in different spaces. Serban’s work with the singers was meticulous. Every line had sense, and nothing was left out. The acting was naturalistic and strong. The director’s dramatic work with the characters was so good and strong that you could quickly forget about the multiple extras doing gymnastic routines all around the set. And I believe that this is the success of the production and why it has been in Opera de Paris’ repertoire for so long; it has a theatrical impact.

Rae Shines

Brenda Rae, as Lucia, sang with a dark voice marked with sweet vibrato and astonishing projection in the upper register. There was little doubt she was a good Lucia after hearing the opening recitative and aria, “Ancor non giunse! Regnava nel silencio!” Lucia is written for a lyric voice with coloratura. If we don’t take into consideration of the critical edition with higher keys in several Lucia scenes, then the role does not go higher than a high C, and it’s not really insistent in the higher register.

All the high notes and cadenzas have been interpolated by leggera sopranos, who take possession of the role. Rae sang an incredible hair-raising aria with her fraseo, her way of coloring the voice, and her ability to keep tension. But, in the consequent cabaletta, “Quando rapita in estasi,” showed her depurated coloratura technique with fast and clean scales, diminuedi, staccato notes, and two secure bright and sustained high Ds. Her voice is powerful enough to sound strong and determined during the duet with Edgardo, “Enrico o Raimondo.” Her vocal personification wasn’t a naïve, weak young girl, but a woman mistreated by all men around her, who finds in “madness” her only escape. Her voice was perfectly audible in the final concertante of Act one, and her last high D was thunderous and stable.

As it should be, the highlight of her performance was the “mad scene.” It showed her vocal qualities, a strong middle register, and ability to color the voice by adapting it to the several sudden changes of emotions of the character. Strong and projected high notes, like the high C, “Oh! Gioija che si sente,” and a showcase of vocal pyrotechnics: staccato high notes, fast scales, pianissimo high register, and clean trills. She performed the traditional cadenza and coronated it and the cabaletta, “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” with two bright and secure high E-flats. But, her incarnation of the psychotic young girl, who just murdered her husband and was constantly hallucinating, was memorable. Not only could the soprano go through different emotions with truth and projection, but she also maintained the “character state” throughout the scene. And this is something that very few sopranos manage to do. Her “mad scene” was really hair-raising.

Camerena and Others Struggled

The famous bel canto tenor Javier Camarena sang the role of Edgardo. He had a warm timbre, amazing projection, and impeccable fraseo. But, he lost secureness in the higher register and the astonishing ability he had to do diminuendo even in the highest notes. He still sang the “oppure” in “Teco scenda,” an octave interval to high C sharp. He used to do a perfect diminuendo on the high C sharp, but this time he did some kind of falsetto or mixed voice, which drastically changed the color and harmonics of his voice. When he had to resolve the line down and change to full voice, he had noticeable problems with the pitch. He sang a different cadenza at the end of his aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero.” Yet, the B natural was unstable, and he did not hold it because it felt that the note would break. In his first act duet with Lucia, he switched the vocal line with the soprano, and therefore, he sang a high C instead of the written E flat, which he used to sing magnificently. It did not appear that the tenor was feeling all that well; still, he portrayed an ardent and believable Edgardo.

The Italian baritone, Mattia Olivieri, sang the role of Enrico. He possessed a beautiful and warm lyrical baritone voice. The voice was not big, but his projection made his voice carry over the huge orchestra, and it fulfilled the Bastille auditorium. He sang with great vigor and energy in a role that was mostly angry and threatening. He showed his pure legato fraseo in the central part of his duet with Lucia in “Un folle t’accese,” and his strong secure high notes in an extra high G in the duet. The high G, which finishes the duet and the cabaletta, or the variation he interpolated in the final cadenza of the aria rising up to A natural, did not sound quite in style, and the high note was a bit plain, but it was worth it to value his efforts. Unfortunately, his duet with Edgardo was cut, considerably shortening his role.

The bass, Adam Palka, sang the role of the priest Raimondo. He had a dark and big instrument, but he sacrificed diction for voice production. Therefore, from a D upwards, all the notes had some kind of open vowel. Palka had a weak low register. His low F sharp on the line “a tremenda maestà” was very small and barely audible. He had problems with diction while singing legato, and that is one of the challenges of legato singing: to clearly pronounce all vowels and consonants without cutting the line. In his aria, “Dale stanze,” his diction was blurred and unclean.

Thomas Bettinger was a deficient Arturo. He lacked long legato fraseo, and his timbre was uneven on the passagio zone (Arturo’s short intervention is written between E and F sharp). The high A natural was big and secure, but the attack wasn’t precise. His voice seemed to be more adequate for Puccini and not bel canto. Julie Pasturaud and Éric Huchet were brilliant in their short supportive roles of Alisa and Normanno, respectively.

Conductor Aziz Shokhakimov presented a lively reading of the score with fast tempi in general and kept the action in constant motion. But, he knew how to adapt the tempi to the singers and respected long silences if needed. Shokhakimov breathed with the singers, and he managed to create a dense sound from the pit, something which is not easy in the simple orchestration of the bel canto repertoire. However, the orchestra and chorus of Opera de Paris are really big, and the pit is completely exposed, not partially covered under the stage as it is in other theatres. Therefore, it is quite challenging for the voices to be heard over such a massive sound. Even in the bel-canto repertoire. But the balance between orchestra and singers was perfect, and all voices were perfectly heard in the final concertante of Act one. The maestro managed to create moments of deep emotion, like the mystery of the prelude and the sadness and abandonment in Lucia and Enrico’s duet. Or, during the “mad scene,” where he gave emphasis to the tremolo of the string section giving a sense of instability. The score had many cuts in repetitions, like in Raimondo’s first aria or the concertante. But, what surprised most, was the elimination of Edgardo-Enrico’s duet in Act two. This was a common practice during the first half of the 20th century. After Sutherland and Beverly Sills made Lucia their signature role, this duet has mostly been performed. It is true that it kills the climax in the drama and that it is dramatically weak. I doubt, therefore, if this was Shkhakimov’s choice or Serban’s.

Andrei Serban’s production of “Lucia” looks as fresh as when it opened in 1995. The soprano Brenda Rae was a spectacular Lucia both vocally and dramatically and won the biggest ovation of the night.



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