The unending close-ups and ‘pseudo-artistic’ camera angles shot by video director, Gary Halvorson, came close to deflating the emotion out of the February 7th Telecast of G. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. In Act One, he ran so many quick facial shots, it seemed there was one for each musical measure. He also interjected some unwieldy camera angles from the floor that distorted the singers’ figures.
In Acts Two and Three, however, he calmed down by holding some of the shots longer, leading to smoother camera transitions that gave the viewer more time to focus on a work that is considered the prime example of 19th Century Romantic Opera. In the end, however, the telecast and the forces that surrounded the work – the interviews, the stage direction and the cinematic choices – proved overpowering for Donizetti’s music and the poetry in the Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto that both men so skillfully adapted to represent their beloved genre.
French soprano Natalie Dessay was the afternoon’s host. Since she was the Lucia in the production’s premiere last year, she looked like a good bet to entertain and inform, and entertain she did with big dollops of opinion disguised as information. She started her interview with director Mary Zimmerman with a warning not to mention the music as one of her reasons for directing the opera. So Zimmerman proceeded to tell us the reason she likes directing opera is the challenge of working in a big space. Dessay was cautious in her talk with conductor Marco Armiliato knowing the guy was going to spill the beans and say how much he loved the music. Recognizing his sincerity she had no choice but to listen in silence.
Dessay’s interview with rival Anna Netrebko made her decidedly uncomfortable when she asked Netrebko three or four ‘deep’ questions on how to interpret Lucia’s Mad Scene. Netrebko wasn’t having any of it. The Russian Diva, ever so coy, just kept repeating she wasn’t going to fall into the many musical and dramatic traps the difficult scene presents for the singer. Dessay was at her best when she gave a short synopsis of each act with a teasing smile, gently knocking Donizetti’s romantic plot.
Mary Zimmerman came to opera by way of the theater. In 2002, she won the Best Director Tony for Metamorphoses. Along with set designer Daniel Ostling and costumer designer Mara Blumenfeld, Zimmerman successfully updated Lucia from Sir Walter Scott’s 17th Century Scotland to a late 19th Century setting, keeping the opera and the book’s gothic overtones. Sometimes, the details she imposed interfered with the characterizations. In Act Two, Lucia’s brother, Enrico, sung by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, forces her into a marriage with his ally, Arturo. He does this by showing her a forged letter supposedly written by her lover Edgardo indicating his infidelity.
Netrebko and Kwiecien created viable vocal and dramatic characterizations to accompany Donizetti’s music which is beautifully crafted to bring out Lucia’s growing madness and Enrico’s desperation to save his crumbling fortune. Zimmerman added an incestuous physicality to the conflict which loomed larger that the plot warranted.
Before Lucia leaves to prepare for her wedding, Netrebko slipped a dagger under her sleeve pointing to future use. The tragedy in the opera is that Lucia’s murder of her husband is not premeditated, but spontaneously induced by her psychotic break. This diluted the audience’s emotional involvement in Lucia’s tragic collapse.
The most famous section in the opera is the sextet in Act Two where Donizetti and Cammarano combine gorgeous melody affixed to a powerful text expressing the tense situation for each character. Lucia has just signed the marriage contract when Edgardo enters to find out that she has betrayed him. Enrico is enraged that Edgardo has arrived to upset his plans for Arturo and Lucia. Alisia, Lucia’s confidant, expresses her horror of this confrontation on Lucia’s delicate mental state. And Raimondo, Lucia’s tutor, dreads that this moment will only end in defeat for all.
William Asbrook, in his book, Donizetti and his Operas informs us that, “The irresistible effectiveness of this passage is due to Donizetti’s skill at transforming the rhetoric of confrontation into melody in such a way that it expands this moment so that the audience both feels and savors its pathos.” Here, the camera work and the direction conspired to flatten the emotion and dull the pathos. Zimmerman took a worthy concept – having a photographer take a family portrait freezing the characters movements so that the music acts out their reactions, – and lessened its emotional impact by focusing on the photographer as he slowly moved each cast member and even the chorus into their stylized positions. Halvorson added to the dissolution by keeping Piotr Beczala’s Edgardo from view for most of the piece making the scene appear as a quintet.
But Zimmerman and Halvorson etched a touching and heartbreaking Mad Scene for Netrebko; both the direction and the camera were in sync with the soprano’s natural grace as she molded the musical line to express all of Lucia’s horror at being abandoned by her lover, husband and her brother to face her death alone. More moments like this would have better wedded the audience to the dramatic immediacy of Donizetti’s romantic sensibility.
There are two characteristics to Netrebko’s performance that keep the soprano from projecting herself as a complete artist and singer, a title she definitely deserves. Her face does not carry the legato of emotion from one line or measure to another, giving the appearance of starting the character’s inner turmoil anew. Netrebko also lacks morbidezza, that quality of a soft bite on the beginning of each phrase, that joins the text to the music’s emotion. Her Lucia, however, displayed a lovely presence coupled with a vocal warmth and honesty that she always brings to her interpretations. She wisely eschewed the high E Flat at the end of the Mad Scene’s first section, but interpolated a short one at the scene’s end.
Beczala, who filled in for the indisposed tenor, Rolando Villazón, sang with a vocal confidence and an even sound, covering all of Edgardo’s outbursts and regrets particularly in the opera’s final scene. Donizetti gave the tenor two of the most beautiful arias in the romantic lyric repetoire, “Fra poco a me recovero,” and “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” the first expressing his longing for the grave and the second his desire to reunite with Lucia’s loving spirit. Considering the tenor sang on short notice, he ably molded acting and voice into making one characterization.
Bass, Ildar Abdrazakov’s Raimondo and Kwiecien’s Enrico gave vocally steady and clean performances, with the baritone putting the right dramatic emphasis where Donizetti wanted. But all the performers needed to express a fuller sense of dramatic urgency which would have plucked the heartstrings with an intensity more in line with Donizetti’s sweeping romanticism.