No opera fan loves every opera. All fans have some weak spot, some kind of opera which is like kryptonite to them.
For me, it used to be dramatic bel canto opera. I was just fine with the comic ones, the Barbers of Seville and Elixirs of Love, but there was just something ridiculous about the serious ones that annoyed me.
That certainly is not the case in Seattle Opera's magnificent new Lucia di Lammermoor, which succeeds on every level, a near-total triumph to a degree that astonishes me. It's a brilliant night at the opera.
Seattle's last bel canto opera was Bellini's I puritani back in 2008. The performance I attended back then was notable for Lawrence Brownlee's exceptional vocalism (including an unbelievable high F) and basically nothing else. So last night, before the performance began, I noticed a disquieting note in the program booklet. "Set design adapted by Robert A. Dahlstrom from Seattle Opera's 2008 I puritani." Back in 2008, I hated that set. I'm not a fan of unit sets in general, which sucks for me, because the new economic reality of opera means more and more operas will have them. But now? A unit set not only for one opera, but two? I steeled myself for a lousy night at McCaw Hall.
Boy was I wrong.
Let's start with the title role: From Poland, soprano Aleksandra Kurzak made her debut, not only with Seattle Opera, but in the role of Lucia. She was absolutely first-rate. Her voice sounded made-to-order, not just for the role, but for the house: some singers' voices become lost in the spacious hall when singing piano, but not Miss Kurzak's. Even her softest singing filled the house. Her coloratura was clear and agile, her acting was vivid, and she was a beautiful figure on stage. Her arias and mad scene were magnificent and brought the house down.
William Burden, last seen in Seattle in the World Premiere production of Amelia in May, sang Edgardo: I suspect it may have been a role debut for him as well, although there was nothing about that in the program. Frequently, Edgardo is played by more dramatic tenors: Richard Tucker and Placido Domingo are two of the heavier-voiced tenors to be well-known in the part. Burden's lyric tenor was suited to the role and the production well. His death scene was spellbinding, and his singing throughout was bright and refined. He was also a handsome and romantic figure onstage, as if he had stepped right out of the works of Sir Walter Scott.
Lucia's brother Enrico was played by another singer new to Seattle, baritone Ljubomir Puskaric from Croatia. While, as the designated heavy of the piece, he doesn't get as many chances to shine as the leads, he did have several chances to show off his brilliant, clarion high notes.
Arthur Woodley, who played the pastor Raimondo, has been a mainstay at Seattle Opera for over a decade, generally in roles that are too small to be considered principal, but too large to be comprimario: Ferrando in Il trovatore and Bartolo in Nozze di Figaro, for instance. Raimondo, however, is a bonafide principal role, and Woodley was a tower of strength in it, his limber and beautiful bass voice a pleasure to hear in Raimondo's big solo moments. This was the general opinion of the audience, as Woodley deservedly got one of the biggest ovations of the night.
The three smaller roles were all taken by Seattle Opera Young Artists in their mainstage debuts: Normanno was Eric Neuville, Alisa was Lindsey Anderson, and the amusingly smug Arturo was Andrew Stenson. All acquitted themselves well, as did the chorus, appearing onstage for the first time since last March's Falstaff (Amelia had no chorus at all, Tristan und Isolde had men's chorus only, kept offstage).
The conductor, making his Seattle Opera debut was Bruno Cinquegrani from Naples, Italy. The singers and orchestra seemed to be well synchronized and in good balance. If one of the reasons we could hear Miss Kurzak's softest singing was because he kept the orchestra down, well then, bravo to him!
Now, a musically excellent performance was not a surprise to me. What was a surprise was the dramatic excellence. Yes, the old I puritani set--a series of cast-iron catwalks and staircases--loomed over the stage for the entire performance. However, director Tomer Zvulun (from Tel Aviv) and American designer Dahlstrom created a performance area in front of the iron construction which used a minimum of set decoration to create distinctly different scenes. A conceit of the production was that Lucia was haunted from the beginning, and the production used scrims, the many catwalks, clever lighting effects (lighting designer Robert Wierzel), and numerous supernumeraries and actors to show ghosts either reenacting horrors of the past, or perhaps simply predicting Lucia's future fate. Presumably Wierzel was also reponsible for the cloud animation that appeared on the curtain before the performance, during intermissions and scene changes--it set a nice Sturm und Drang vibe for the whole performance. Deborah Trout's costume designs avoided the traditional, anachronistic kilts: the costumes seemed to be set during the time period of the opera's composition.
Costume design and lighting design came together in an extraordinary way during the mad scene: the lighting seemed to wash out any of the colors in the costumes of the chorus and other singers, leaving them appearing monochromatic, causing the blood on Lucia's clothes to jump out in comparison.
It was a wonderful night at the opera. Was it perfect? No. Am I going to tell you about the imperfections? Also no, because frankly, considering the overall excellence of the performance, any imperfections are not worth mentioning.
Further performances with this cast are on Wednesday the 20th, Saturday the 23rd (which will also be broadcast on KING FM), Wednesday the 27th, and Saturday the 30th. The alternate cast (Davinia Rodriguez as Lucia, Scott Piper as Edgardo and Philip Cutlip as Enrico, all other cast members the same) will perform on Sunday the 17th and 24th (both matinee performances) and Friday the 29th.
I'm going to go again, myself. Two more times, if possible. Because a performance like this is what opera should be.