"You are troubled," sang Normanno (in Italian, of course).
"And I have good reason," replied Enrico -- as, indeed, he had. It was the opening scene of the Washington Opera's new production of "Lucia di Lammermoor," and things were not going well; the chorus was milling about the stage in confusion, cues were being missed, the orchestra and the voices were not yet in balance, and the operatic material itself was somewhat less than inspiring.
Three hours later, the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera house was clapping its way toward blistered hands, shouting fortissimo "bravos" and buzzing with excitement on its way to the lobby. A potential disaster had been brilliantly turned to triumph.
The rescue operation was a team effort, spearheaded by several fine voices (most notably that of soprano Ashley Putnam) but also involving some fine stage direction, conductor John Mauceri's excellent sense of pace and timing, and (of crucial importance) some truly stirring material supplied by composer Gaetano Donizetti.
Even when everything goes right, "Lucia" has problems with its beginning and end. Its four central scenes (out of six) contain almost all the really good material, making its structure something like a sandwich with lots of first-class meat between two pieces of slightly stale bread. If the meat is properly spiced, as it was last night, the sandwich works.
Around the time when "Lucia" was new, the proud husband of a prima donna once gave a recipe for success in bel canto opera. All that is really needed, he said, is "my wife and five puppets." Watching and hearing Ashley Putnam last night, one could almost accept that formula -- though it is badly out of style in our times, when ensemble work is justly prized and dramatic values in opera are considered on a par with pure vocalism. If the show had needed to be carried by one singer, Putnam might have been able to do it.
Her voice is sweet, accurate, flexible and beautifully expressive, and she uses it in the service of a considerable acting talent -- though "Lucia" is hardly the ideal opera to judge dramatic ability. Her work in the opening scenes, was melodramatically stylized -- as this script almost requires. She played it like a rather fragile and downtrodden Victorian young lady who has suffered more than her share of abuse. The portrayal grew gradually credible until the mad scene, when it blazed forth -- repression released in a performance that blended bravura singing with bravura acting.
Less spectacular but rock-solid was the contribution of Spanish baritone Juan Pons as Enrico. Tenor Riccardo Calleo, as Edgardo, sang with excellent tone, exemplary diction, a fine dramatic presence in scenes involving action and just a shade less than the optimum subtlety in dynamics, phrasing and dramatic nuance -- a very good voice that can become a great one with a bit more seasoning. The other principal singers were reliable throughout, and their ensemble work in the sextet made it a moment of glory.
In spite of a rather trite beginning and end, in spite of a plot that is made of papier mache and characters who are only marginally credible, "Lucia" has moments of true greatness, with a wealth of fine tunes to carry the audience from one climax to the next. Besides doing justice to the tunes, this production concentrates special energy on these big moments, and the tactic works superbly.
There is a strong temptation in "Lucia" to let the dramatic values go unattended and make it work on pure vocalism. The challenge must be particularly strong when the voices are as good as they are in this production, but it was nobly resisted. The opera is taken on its own terms, as melodrama of a bygone era, played seriously in that style, and well leavened with lyricism. The recipe is more complicated than "my wife and five puppets," and it produces much better opera.