‘Lucia di Hyannis Port’? Bel Canto Madness Updated

Lucia (Diana Damrau) goes mad in the Bavarian State opera production of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor.'  (Photos courtesy of Bavarian State Opera)
Lucia (Diana Damrau) goes mad in the Bavarian State Opera production of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’
(Photos courtesy of Bavarian State Opera)
By Rebecca Schmid

MUNICH — A new production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Bavarian State Opera brought several first encounters. Both music director Kirill Petrenko and the director Barbara Wysocka had yet to tackle a bel canto opera, and tenor Pavol Breslik made his debut as Lucia’s lover, Edgardo.

Lucia (Damrau) and Edgardo (Pavol Breslik) in a rare moment alone.
Lucia (Damrau) and Edgardo (Pavol Breslik) in a rare moment alone.

The staging updates the feud between the Ashton and Ravenswood estates from 17th century Scotland to 1950s America, with intended depictions of the Kennedy family. Seen at the Jan. 26 premiere, the entire story unfolds in a decrepit hotel ballroom (sets by Barbara Hanicka) where a young girl — a vision of Lucia as a child — wanders somewhere between reality and the title character’s imagination.

The ceiling is crumbling, chairs are turned over. An empire has already fallen when the curtain opens. Edgardo rolls in, James Dean-style, in a Cadillac convertible, while Lucia (the seasoned soprano Diana Damrau) is a rebellious, strong-willed woman hiding behind her Jackie-O sunglasses. Her brother, Enrico (Dalibor Jenis), is a stifling bureaucrat whose quarters might be the Oval Office when he forges a letter accusing Edgardo of being unfaithful to Lucia.

The staging is carefully conceived and reveals the timelessness of Lucia’s plight: Caught between the political agenda of her brother and a love that he does not condone, she is driven to madness, murdering her betrothed, Arturo, with a pistol before wreaking havoc at her own wedding. According to Wysocka’s vision, Lucia is a not a victim but a perpetrator of her fate, delighting in the scandal that brings down her own family.

In practice, however, the production places too much emphasis on realistic images and becomes drowned in clichés that ultimately do little to illuminate the opera’s psychological underpinnings. By the third act, Edgardo’s car has crashed into the wall of the ballroom (perhaps a reference to Ted Kennedy’s scandal-provoking Chappaquiddick accident). Lucia, sporting an immaculate sequined dress rather than the more typical bloodied bridal gown (costumes by Julia Kornacka), sings part of her mad scene (“Alfin son tua, alfin sei mio!”) into a microphone before the shocked guests.

Tension mounts between Edgardo (Dalibor Jenis) and Lucia (Damrau).
Tension mounts between Enrico (Dalibor Jenis) and Lucia (Damrau).

Perhaps because of her background in spoken theater, Wysocka attempts to bring depth to the characters through visual gestures, such as prolonged facial expressions and repeated gesticulations rather than more subtle emotional exchanges. That said, Damrau overcame the staging’s trappings by fusing her musical and dramatic performance into a consistent whole. Every outburst and coloratura line were endowed with convincing expression, from her haunted outbursts by the fountain, where she and Edgardo secretly meet in the first act, to her manic unraveling in the mad scene.

It was easy to forgive her flat high note after a devastating take on the cavatina “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” in which she tore Enrico’s forged letter into pieces. The performance was all the more powerful in counterpoint with a glass harmonica, which is typically replaced with a flute, given the relative obscurity of the instrument included in Donizetti’s original score.

Breslik proved himself a worthy match as Edgardo, bringing the final act to a rousing climax with his aria “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” in which he chooses to join Lucia in heaven — holding a pistol to his stomach — since they cannot be together on earth. Throughout the evening, his seductive tone and tasteful phrasing made clear that we should be hearing more from this tenor on major opera stages.

The bass Georg Zeppenfeld made for a moving Chaplain Raimondo, his smooth, grounded tone exuding the character’s moral force. He fell short only in matters of diction. Jenis’ Enrico proved disappointing in both dramatic and musical scope. His booming baritone lacked nuance, and when he promised punishment to Lucia in the mad scene (“Ne avrai condegna pena…”), his confrontation was as flat as cardboard.

Edgardo (Pavol Breslik) confirms his hatred for the Ravenswood family.
Edgardo (Pavol Breslik) confirms his hatred for the Ashton family.

In comprimario roles, mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson was a loyal companion to Lucia as Alisa and the tenor Dean Power a scheming Normanno, who encourages the betrothal of Lucia to Arturo in order to save the Ashton fortunes. Emmanuele D’Aguanno brought a ringing tenor and righteous presence to the role of the wealthy bridegroom.

Petrenko drew a warm if often brass-heavy sound from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. While he maintained admirable balance with the singers, the orchestra did not provide the bounce needed in the oom-pah-pah accompaniment to fast arias, and the legato was exaggerated in fiery numbers, such as Lucia’s “Quando, rapito in estasi.” He found his stride, however, in the first-act duet, “Verranno a te sull’aure,” and created delicate moments with the glass harmonica in the mad scene.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide and other publications.