LOS ANGELES — Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is supposed to be a singers’ opera, or so tradition dictates. Yet I doubt whether I will ever lock it into that category again after witnessing Simon Stone’s transformation of this hoary old thing into a vibrant, surprisingly relatable picture of lower-middle class American life in 2022.
The Met mounted Stone’s production in spring of 2022, and Los Angeles Opera took it up as its season-opener, with the first performance on Sep. 17 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In this incarnation, Lucia is now a director’s opera — and, unlike a lot of regietheatre, it really works.
In his first operatic production — Korngold’s Die tote Stadt for Theater Basel in 2016, also mounted at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper in 2019 (the Munich version is available on DVD/Blu-ray) — Stone displayed a knack for filling his sets with structures and memorabilia that either evoke stark modernity or nostalgia for the past as mounted on a turntable. He and scenery designer Lizzie Clachan do the same here. The director takes a dark view of what has happened to the so-called American Dream in the Rust Belt which — like the fortunes of the Ashton family of Lammermoor in far-off, long-ago Scotland — has been in steady decline, albeit for different reasons.
In Acts I and II, the turntable takes us on continuous tours of an archetypical Rust Belt town — past the mini-mart selling junk food and booze, the 24-hour pawn shop, a fleabag motel for trysts, the pharmacy that dispenses drugs to those looking for temporary escape from their pain, the inevitable ATM machine, and the aging two-story family home that Enrico and his put-upon sister Lucia are trying to keep. The attention to detail is remarkable — the missing letters on the illuminated signs, the Beyoncé poster in Lucia’s room as inspiration for a girl who wants out, the rundown drive-in theater that can only muster up the old 1947 Bob Hope film My Favorite Brunette as entertainment. In Act III, the town’s buildings are bunched together as if to stand back as the tragedy reaches its denouement.
There aren’t any good jobs around, probably because an unnamed company outsourced manufacturing to Mexico or China, and the people are restless, especially Enrico, who forces Lucia to marry a rich guy, Arturo, instead of Edgardo, her U.S. Army-bound lover. The cellphone becomes an evil tool (a not-so-subtle commentary): blocked text messages and photoshopped pictures that give the false impression Edgardo is cheating on Lucia. There is added video overhead — some of it shot in real-time as an intrusion on Lucia’s privacy, some of it displaying Lucia’s dream world. Stone doesn’t accept Lucia being driven mad solely because of an unwanted marriage, so as further motivation for her actions, she is addicted to opioids like many citizens of depressed areas in the heartland.
What does any of this have to do with Donizetti’s music? In musical terms, not much. There will always be a clash between the formal sound and ambiance of early 19th-century Italian bel canto opera and this hostile all-American environment (not that the original setting in gloomy Scotland is a better match, to be honest). But neither is this production gratuitous graffiti on an old canvas, for Stone and his team have taken the trouble to create a viable modern parable that can immerse an American audience in a landscape it knows without seriously distorting the thrust of the plot. Ultimately, I found the production to be entertaining, endlessly absorbing in its deep-dive detail, and easily more involving than any previous Lucia that I’ve seen.
Oh right, I almost forgot. There are singers to deal with here, and one in particular who was outstanding. That was Amanda Woodbury, the Lucia du jour (she will be succeeded by Liv Redpath later in the run beginning Sept. 28), who sang beautifully with perfectly executed trills and performed a touching call-and-response duet with the glass harmonica in the Act III mad scene. In the end, her character seemed more fed up with her treatment at the hands of the men in town than crazy, and maybe a little spaced-out from the dope. The lead tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Edgardo) maintained a steady command of line, while the other tenor character, whose name in the opera happens to be Arturo (Anthony Ciaramitaro), had more of a ringing tone quality. Baritone Alexander Birch Elliott exuded menace as Enrico, and bass-baritone Eric Owens sounded shaky but not inappropriately so as Raimondo the aging priest.
Lina González-Granados, in her debut as LA Opera resident conductor, had evidently gathered a big fan base before she even got started; the ovations for her prior to each act were loud and long. She made good on her welcome, following the singers closely, getting a unified response from the LA Opera Orchestra, and overcoming the uneasy blend of voices in the famous Sextet by driving the music forward. It’s onward and upward for her.
So in this Lucia, almost everybody wins — the buffs who go to operas mainly to hear good singers and death-defying vocal stunts with orchestral accompaniment, those who like Regietheater updates that make sense, Gesamtkunstwerk seekers who want opera to be the entire all-inclusive package, and, yes, newcomers to opera looking for something to relate to. If you fit into any of these slots, go.
Performances run through Oct. 9. For tickets and information, go here.