Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” builds inexorably toward its great third-act mad scene in which the title character — caught between her manipulative brother Enrico, who has forced her into a loveless marriage, and her true love, Edgardo, who has accused her of faithlessness — unravels emotionally, mentally and musically. It is perhaps the most famous 15 minutes of vocal pyrotechnics in opera.
Sarah Coburn, a soprano with a steady, colorful and sometimes smoky voice, sang it cool at Thursday night’s opening of the Washington National Opera’s “Lucia” at the Kennedy Center. Other sopranos will run about the stage, lie prostrate warbling at the ceiling and indulge in wild tempos and jarring ruptures where the composer has cobbled together intentionally episodic shifts of musical material. But in keeping with the generally chilly mood of director David Alden’s conceptual production, first seen at the English National Opera, Coburn sang within decorous bounds, effortlessly discharging her musical duties without taxing herself too much dramatically. Her white wedding dress was stained with her hapless husband’s blood, but interpretively she was laced up tight, and squeaky clean.
Alden has set his “Lucia” in Victorian times, with a set (by Charles Edwards) that suggests an abandoned orphanage or the brutal Salem House in Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield.” Plaster crumbles and wallpaper peels, and old radiators look as futile as the room is frigid. The lighting (by Adam Silverman and Jeff Bruckerhoff) casts long, eerie shadows and gives a metallic sheen to the dour, black-and-white costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel). It has nothing to do with the castles, crags and derelict gardens of Sir Walter Scott’s original “The Bride of the Lammermoor,” upon which the libretto is based. It is more Edward Gorey meets Michel Foucault, a study in creepy, institutionalized cruelty.
The production team got some lusty boos during curtain calls, only about 10 percent of which were justified. Despite the story’s setting in early-18th-century Scotland, both Scott’s novel and Donizetti’s opera are intellectually and spiritually of the 19th century. The power of their narrative has everything to do with the incompatible views of marriage regnant in Victorian culture, marriage as commercial exchange with women as chattel, or marriage as romantic love match. Europe was still processing the dilemma 20 years after the 1835 premiere of “Lucia,” when Flaubert sent his tedious adulteress Madame Bovary to the opera, to “Lucia” of course.
If someone could burnish off the rough bumps of pure silliness that always seems to infect good conceptual productions, Alden’s “Lucia” would be a formidable exercise. Strike out the scene in which Enrico ties his sister to a bedstead; get rid of the suggestion that Edgardo not only shoots himself at the end but gets strangled, too; and put some doors into the scenery flats so that the chorus doesn’t have to climb through windows. Focus, instead, on tightening entrances so that Edgardo’s wedding-crashing arrival at the end of Act II and Raimondo’s announcement in Act III that Lucia has lost her wits have the same dramatic power as Donizetti’s music.
Unfortunately, the Washington National Opera needs someone who can step in and finish off the details. The stagehands Thursday were invasively noisy behind the curtain, which is amateur stuff. Alden’s production needs only a bit of editing to have real emotional force. And musically, a few more rehearsals would help conductor Philippe Auguin clean up the many tempo disagreements and small infelicities between chorus and orchestra. Hire some horn players who can enter cleanly and together, and the performance would have real polish.
Fortunately, the cast was compelling. Coburn’s voice has genuine character and sufficient force to carry the role. In the heat of the moment, she has all the speed and clarity one can hope for; only when she seems to calculate too much, as in the rather stilted and slow tempo of the Act I “Regnava nel silenzio” does the music take on the methodical, dutiful grind of overstudied bel canto. The mad scene, though dramatically contained, was looser, more expressive and satisfying.
As Edgardo, Saimir Pirgu, an Albanian tenor making his WNO debut, is a happy discovery, with the rare ability to support the tone and connect bits of disconnected material into meaningful phrases, without forcing the beauty of his voice. His final aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero,” is a brutal study in a large, upward bounding phrases. Like Coburn in her mad scene, Pirgu made it smooth, pliant and a little cold.
That was the spirit of the evening. “Lucia” has frightened and titillated since Scott worked up some bloody local gossip into a potboiler novel. Donizetti made the blood flow with Mediterranean abandon, and generations of singers have forced the music to extremes that it can’t necessarily bear. The Alden production, and the performances that carry it, seem intended as a kind of corrective, a psychological autopsy under a cold, clinical light. It is a reasonable if sometimes frustrating approach, more rewarding to the ears and mind then the thirst for traditional operatic thrills.
A second cast, with the distinguished Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova, will alternate with the singers heard Thursday.
by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano. Directed by David Alden; music conducted by Philippe Auguin. With Alexey Dolgov, Michael Chioldi, Brian Mulligan, Mirco Palazzi, Paolo Pecchioli, Sarah Mesko, Jeffrey Gwaltney, Corey Evan Rotz. Two hours 35 minutes.Through Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.