by SOPHIE KERMAN
The Minnesota Opera can’t be accused of playing it safe in its recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera, written in 1835 by Gaetano Donizetti, has long been considered as a star vehicle for its leading lady – a singers’ opera, with long bel canto lines that showcase a performer’s virtuoso talents. Traditionally, opera companies will stick to that tradition as they design sets and costumes that take a back seat to the music. Not so in this production: for better or for worse, director James Robinson‘s surreal and symbolic take on Luciawill challenge both new and experienced opera-goers to think beyond opera’s purely musical qualities.
That said, the MN Opera has not forgotten about the music. Under conductor Leonardo Vordoni‘s capable baton, the orchestra and vocalists perform to perfection. As Lucia, Susanna Phillips is just breathtaking, with a voice that sounds at once effortless and totally committed to the role. The supporting characters – Enrico, Lucia’s brother (James Westman), Edgardo, her lover (Michael Spyres), and Arturo, her bridegroom (A. J. Glueckert) – all sing flawlessly but suffer from a lack of dramatic direction. Where the MN Opera’s earlier productions this season have all highlighted the more theatrical qualities of each opera, Lucia feels more like a concert, with many arias delivered straight out to the audience without much physical movement or theatrical motivation.
Rather than focus on the acting, the opera’s production team has experimented with some abstract design concepts that call upon the audience’s understanding of symbolic or expressionist art. Christine Jones‘s sets, which premiered at the Pittsburgh Opera in 2002, consist of several large brown slabs which could be said to represent castle walls or rocky crags, but from my more literal-minded perspective, they looked like wide pieces of corrugated cardboard. While this may have been conceptually groundbreaking ten years ago in Pittsburgh, the cumbersome set did little to support Lucia‘s dramatic action.
Similarly, some of Constance Hoffman‘s costume choices seem interesting but arbitrary. When Edgardo, the romantic lead, comes on stage for the first time wearing what look like dirty long johns, one wonders what Lucia is making such a fuss about. And although Robinson has kept on-stage movement to a minimum, some of the choices he makes are just bizarre, including a scene in which a man of the church (Raimondo, sung very well by Ben Wager) strips Lucia down to her slip in order to coax her into a wedding dress.
I am of two minds when I disagree so intensely with a production. On the one hand, I am pleased that the Minnesota Opera is thinking outside the box. Opera has a reputation for being stodgy and discouraging innovation, and this is certainly not your grandmother’s Lucia. On the other hand, from a theatrical perspective, I believe that innovation ought to grow organically from what is already present in the script, shedding new light on old stories without trying to reinvent them entirely. This production, with its immobile characters and dark sets, sucks away the passion and dramatic vigor that is typically drive performances of Lucia. I may sound like a curmudgeon, but I wish they had stuck to tradition on this one.
For production videos and interviews with the cast, visit the Minnesota Opera’s YouTube page.
Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Sung in Italian with English translations projected above the stage. Presented by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway, 345 Washington St., St Paul, MN 55102. March 3-10, 2012. Tickets $20-200 on www.mnopera.org or by calling the ticket office at 612.333.6669.