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.