Opernhaus Zürich 2020-21 Review: Lucia di Lammermoor

Irina Lungu & Piotr Beczała Save Donizetti’s Masterpiece From Confusing Production

By Mauricio Villa

As the COVID crisis ‘winds down’ due to the vaccine rollout and the health measures taken this past year, opera houses around the world are finally opening their doors to once again present live opera.

Every theater is different and has to therefore find different solutions to address the health measures. Social distancing in the audience is a must, though that can be hard to maintain in such small houses as the Zürich Opera House, which recently staged Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The company’s solution to performing opera without risks of infection was to place the orchestra and chorus in the company’s rehearsal room. The room is about 1 km away from the theater and therefore the music was reproduced live without delay through speakers into the empty pit. The volume of the chorus and the orchestral sound was impeccable and they managed to recreate a naturally balanced sound that did not interfere or diminish the performance from the audience’s perspective.

It is probably not the ideal way to represent an opera performance. Purists, no doubt, will be scandalized for getting the music through speakers and singers most likely had a hard time with timing, pitch, and even projection. I strongly believe, however, that this way of performing was better than having no performances at all. With most theaters closed for an entire season and thousands of singers and musicians unemployed, the reopening of theaters, in whatever condition they perform, is giving jobs back to artists.

An Affecting Lucia

Russian soprano Irina Lungu stepped into the role of Lucia, after a sudden cancelation by Lisette Oropesa earlier this year. Lungu is not the first person you think of for Lucia as she is a full lyric voice with a darker register. But she has the ideal voice for this role as she posses a lyrical instrument, strong in the middle register and a voluminous high register. She also has a velvet dark timbre quality, clean coloratura, and impeccable breath control.

Her entrance cavatina, “Ancor non giunse…Regnava nel silenzio,” was full of pathos and menacing emotion, with delicate phrasing in the middle register, and a splendid dramatic chest voice in “L’ombra mostrarsi.” Then the cabaletta became the usual showcase of vocal pyrotechnicians where Lungu sang beautiful pianissimi B naturals and a high D natural and high C on the repetition. She had some trouble singing the scales following the frenzied interlude of conductor Speranza Scapucci. It hindered the overall effect of Lungu’s performance but the soprano was able to end the aria with an impeccable interpolated high D. The note rang throughout the theater.

Lungu was splendid and secure in her duet with tenor Piotr Beczała, playing Edgardo di Ravenswood. However, it was her Act two duet with baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Enrico Ashton that the highlight. Donizetti intended this duet to be performed in A, but it has been traditionally transposed to G major. And it is here, where leggera voices can have a hard time with the heavy low tessitura. But Lungu’s lyrical voice could meet all the demands of the score. She was comfortable in the middle-low vocal line and expressed Lucia’s anger and disappointment for Edgardo’s fake betrayal and her forced marriage.

The marriage scene showed Lungu’s acting abilities, presenting scenes of deep anguish and desperation, as Lucia’s mental health deteriorates due to the pressure for the forced marriage and Edgardo’s subsequent public humiliation.

After two impeccable acts, Lungu was thrilling in the mad scene. The scene was performed in E flat, rather than Donizetti’s original F major, which gave Lungu chances to show her acting and vocally recreate the delusional state of Lucia, whose rollicking emotions dance between extremes. Her vast color palette was immense showcasing legato notes, short staccato notes, and chilling pianissimi. Lungu also delivered in vocal fireworks as she proved that despite her lyrical/dramatic background, she showcased impressive scales, staccato high notes, floating high notes, and a powerful E flat to end the scene. After a dramatic bridge, Lungu sang “Spargi d’Amaro” to haunting effect. She ended the cabaletta with a high E flat that rang with power.

A Powerful Edgardo

Piotr Beczała, in the role of Edgardo, was in excellent form. It was one of the best performances I have heard from this tenor in recent years and it was likely due to the fact that this role suits the tenor very well and he has sung it for many years to great acclaim. His voice resonated beautifully throughout the hall throughout the entire evening. He was ardent and determined in his entrance to the duet “Lucia, perdona” and sang the long phrase ‘Ah! verrano a te sull’aure’ in a single breath. He also ended the duet with a long B flat along with the soprano.

His best high notes of the night were the B flat of ‘Ah! Vi disperda!’ and in the cadenza to the recitative ‘Tombe degli avi miei.’ He attacked the note in his narrow, small position but once the note was secure he managed to expand the sound, making the high notes brilliant and projected. His technique of voice production creates multiple colors and a guttural sound around the passagio, blurring his diction and making his timbre unstable. This is why fragments like “bell’alma innamorata” were not memorable, even when the notes and breath support were secure. It remains one of the best interpretations I have seen from the Polish tenor.

Respectable Supporting Cast

Massimo Cavaletti portrayed Enrico Ashton with his strong instrument and stage presence that made him ideal for the role. He went deep into the character presenting multiple layers. We saw his remorse, doubt, and sadness, rather than the clichéd villain audiences are used to. In this production, he hangs himself in the final scene.

Cavaletti’s voice is astounding and he pours anger and violence into his entrance aria “Cruda funesta smania” and the second duet with Lucia. He has effortless secure high notes, like the three high Gs in his first scene or his long A natural alongside Beczała during his duet at the beginning of Act three. I must add that the sound on his very top notes is open and the vibrato is wobbly, making the timbre strange, especially considering that the rest of his tessitura is round and with a marked vibrato.

The bass Oleg Tsibulko interpreted the role of Raimondo Bidebent with his beautiful timbre and modest volume. He can easily sing the long legato phrases of Donizetti, but both his high and low notes lack volume and sound guttural and small. At the end of his duet with Lucia in Act two he went up to a high F as Lucia went down to the same note in her vocal octave, and Lungu’s voice completely covered the bass note, which was barely audible. He also had problems with the low F in “La tremenda maestá” which once again sounded small and swallowed. Even if he has a depurated bel canto style and his phrasing is fluid, his performance never met convinced completely.

The performances of Andrew Owens, Ian Milne, and Roswitha Christina Müller as Arturo, Normanno, and Alisa respectively were adequate and stylish in their small roles. It was anecdotal that Milne was injured, and he sang his role from the empty pit while an actor played his part on stage.

A Confused Production

The key concepts of the production were based around a revolving stage and Lucia, Edgardo, and Normanno as children played by young actors. This concept has been profusely seen during the last 20 years and is not modern or original anymore. It contradicts the idea of the concept and dramaturgy present in most modern opera productions.

The set is the corner of a room with a bed, sofa, wall clock, and two doors on both walls. As the set revolves, which happens incessantly, we see that there are four exact replicas of the same room. As the opera progresses each room begins changing and deteriorating. During the Act One duet between Lucia and Edgardo, the mattress from the bed vanishes and we find a bed of flowers and thick roots creeping along the walls. During the wedding scene in Act Two, an entire wall is gone and in the final scene, only the bare structure of a single wall remains standing.

Director Tatjana Gürbaca tells a story during the prelude of how a young Lucia is frightened by a man in underpants with a skeletal bullhead and how she is saved by a young Edgardo who shoots an arrow. The young duplicates of the leading characters and the arrow are a constant leitmotif throughout the opera, reappearing in multiple scenes. Edgardo, for example, kills himself with the arrow in the last scene. You can tell that Gürbaca has studied theater and has watched many operas as she uses, as an example, the classic directorial technique of having some characters frozen on stage while others interact. Once again, however, this needs to have a dramatic purpose and be connected to the action of the scene. This was not the case in Lucia’s entrance to the chorus “Perte d’immeso giubilo,” where Arturo walks between extras standing as statues. There was the case where Enrico, Normanno, and his accomplices were frozen as Lucia walked around them during the long harp introduction of “ancor non giunse.” I could find no possible dramatic purpose for it and it ended up making no sense.

Similarly confusing was the reappearance of a Young Lucia and a minotaur during Lucia’s first aria “Regnava nel silenzio.” Both repeated the same actions they did in the prelude. Throughout the scene Lucia also walked barefoot with her shoes in her pockets. This must have been of some significance for Gürbaca, as the opera played a lot with those shoes during the scene. But what was the meaning of it all? I guess we would have to ask the director. The audience could similarly not understand why Lucia tore a pillow apart and filled the stage with feathers. The idea of moving all the extras and soloist singers in slow motion during the famous sextet in Act two “Chi mi frena in tal momento” seemed appealing at the beginning, but it was too much and ultimately ended up being confusing, cliched, and diminished the potential of this scene. It is hard to go into much more detail about the staging because the entire evening seemed to be one pointless action after another.

The orgy and sexual references during the chorus “D’immenso giubilo” was unnecessary and entirely out of context, going against the music and the plot of the opera. The idea of Lucia entering the stage to her mad scene stabbing Arturo profusely was brilliant. One could see Arturo bleeding on the stage and the violence that Lucia has been led to. However, it was not well placed nor made sense with the text. Lucia entered during the end of the chorus “Ah! Quella destra,” which has a requiem style to it that clashed with the frenzied violence of Lucia’s action. Furthermore, Raimondo has just described, only minutes before, how he found Arturo’s mute body on the floor, motionless and full of blood, which makes it clear to the audience that he is already dead. This is yet-another example of how modern directors forget about the libretto and make singers perform actions which go against what is being said. This can be really confusing for the audience. Constantly moving the extras throughout the mad scene was not a wise choice, as they took the focus away from Lucia’s big scene. I am compelled to say, however, that the directing of the acting was very truthful, dramatic and meaningful, and that you could really see and understand the motivations and feelings of the characters.

I am conscious that the way opera was staged 60 years ago has changed but many moderns ideas concerning dramaturgy are not a good solution. Directors tend to reinvent the plot in order to be original, rather than explaining the opera to the audience and making it believable and emotional. This is, unfortunately, the case in this production. The labor of a stage director should be creatively recreating rather than inventing.

Uneven Conducting

I can define the conducting of Speranza Scappucci as extremely fast. If her idea was to make the music more action-driven, she did not succeed. As the singers fought to catch up with the super-fast tempi, one got the feeling that the conductor was in a hurry to end the performance. This was particularly clear in Lucia’s Act one Cabaletta. As noted, Lungu had a hard time keeping her breath control in the scales. She used contrast by adding some rallentando which are not marked on the score. But it sometimes seemed forced and awkward.

There were also some strange musical choices such as making Lucia rising to a high C and Edgardo maintain an A natural at the close of their duet. This obviously works harmonically, but in the score, a high E flat is written for the tenor and there is a high C for the soprano. As few tenors have this extremely high note, Lucia and Edgardo usually sing both A natural. This chord seemed a bit odd to me and I cannot understand the musical reasons for it especially when the music was cut off just to give these singers time to reach the chord.

It was also strange that at the end of the sextet, Lucia did not sing the traditional D flat. This was probably because Scapucci opted for a pianissimo ending but it seemed anticlimactic. One of the most interesting choices of the evening was the way Scappucci ended the first part of the mad scene. Scappucci ended with the original chorus and orchestra coda that ends in pianissimo rather than the usual forte. The inclusion was unusual given all the cuts this production had. However, it was a stroke of brilliance for this performance that they used a glass harmonica, instead of a flute which was Donizetti’s original intention.

I want to point out that the awkward tempi and lack of cohesiveness in the orchestra may have been due to the fact that Scappucci was conducting from a rehearsal room and that may have marred her overall interpretation.  The orchestra and chorus were amplified through the speakers and while it wasn’t the natural sound we are used to, I can only assert that the sound was good quality.

In all, the Zürich Opera House’s staging of “Lucia di Lammermoor” was a nonsensical, modern production with questionable conducting, saved by a cast of good singers and talented actors. It was, nevertheless, a good overall effort from an opera house finally reopening to the public after so much turmoil and global uncertainty.


ReviewsStage Reviews